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My mother, who has been working as a mental health nurse for several years, is very passionate about reducing the stigmas associated with mental illness. Her work in this field has inspired me to look into these stigmas for myself and see what I can do to help reduce the stigmas of mental illness. My I-search is focused on Schizophrenia and how the false stigmas surrounding this disease can cause intense struggle for not only those who have been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, but their friends and family as well.
What do you think of when you hear the term Schizophrenic? Perhaps a "crazy" person locked with in a padded cell, babbling incoherently? Or maybe you see a grungy homeless man screaming in an aggressive fit of rage. Sadly, this is our image of Schizophrenia. Our views have become so warped by the media and our own misunderstanding that most of us have no idea what Schizophrenia actually is. This needs to change.
Schizophrenia is a brain disease that affects one in every one-hundred Canadians. It is not something that can be linked to personality types, or a weakness in character, and those who are diagnosed with Schizophrenia have done nothing to make them more susceptible to this illness. Schizophrenia is NOT split personality or multiple personality disorder; however, it is very commonly confused with these illnesses. Schizophrenia cannot be caused by stress, drug use, childhood trauma, poor parenting, neglect or poverty. In reality, Schizophrenia is a biological illness caused by a malfunction of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are often referred to as "chemical messengers" and they are responsible for transmitting impulses throughout the brain and central nervous system.
Scientists have hypothesized reasons for the malfunction of these neurotransmitters but it is very difficult to know for sure as it occurs in the brain and is very difficult to monitor. Schizophrenia is a disease that has been around for ages but has only been focused on by researchers over the past few decades. Although the cause of Schizophrenia is not completely known, we know that it is hugely affected by genetics. This quote from the Public Health Agency of Canada shares some interesting statistics on the percentage of Schizophrenia caused by genetics.
Immediate family members of individuals with schizophrenia are 10 times more likely than the general population to develop Schizophrenia, and children of two parents with Schizophrenia have a 40% chance of developing the disorder. (B)
The symptoms of Schizophrenia are often categorized into a list of positive and negative symptoms. The positive symptoms refer to a symptom that was non-existent before the Schizophrenia developed, such as a hallucination or delusion. In other words it is a symptom that was added to your everyday life. Negative symptoms are symptoms that took something away that you used to have control over. An example of a negative symptom would be the inability to focus, have ambition, express emotion, or function in social situations. Do not be confused and think that a positive symptom refers to something advantageous, it is meant to be understood in the mathematical sense as something that was added which was not there before.
Social withdrawal is one of the major negative symptoms of Schizophrenia. Those with Schizophrenia will remove themselves from society and the outer world and begin to live within themselves. They may also have difficulty experiencing and expressing emotion. Fortunately, these symptoms are controllable by the use of proper medication.
Another common misconception about Schizophrenia is that Schizophrenia is psychosis. However, psychosis is something that is related to a series of mental illnesses and is only associated with Schizophrenia as a symptom. Psychosis has a very wide range of symptoms, however some of the most common are hallucinations and delusions. A hallucination is a distortion from reality that has to do with the senses. A hallucination would involve seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or even tasting something that is not there. Although these hallucinations are not real to us, they are extremely real to those experiencing them. A delusion, which is often confused with hallucinations, is a fixed belief of idea an individual has that is not shared by the rest of society. Such a belief might be that a person is one of Christ's disciples, or that they are being monitored by the F.B.I. Hallucinations and delusions are often quite frightening and commonly involve feelings of being tracked or hunted.
Although Schizophrenia is not yet curable, its symptoms are very much treatable. With a combination of medication and support from both family and a good psychiatrist those who have Schizophrenia can lead productive, normal lives. Unfortunately, stigmatism is not something that can be controlled, yet it poses a very large problem for many people who have Schizophrenia.
Many people do not realize the severity of stigma surrounding mental illness, or for that matter, what stigma truly is. This definition taken from SANE Australia gives an excellent description of what stigma is and talks briefly on how it affects those who have to face stigma everyday.
Stigma is the perception of a group of people as less worthy of respect than others. Stigma against people with a mental illness involves inaccurate and hurtful representations of them as violent, comical or incompetent - dehumanizing them as objects of fear or ridicule. Stigma can lead to self-stigma causing a reluctance to seek treatment. This untreated illness, in turn, contributes to suicidal thinking and behavior. Stigma in the media is especially harmful, because of the effect this has on community attitudes.(H)
How many times have you watched or heard of a horror movie where the ferocious killer is suffering from Schizophrenia? Probably quite a few. These movies, which are watched by billions of people all over the globe, create terror surrounding Schizophrenia. They spread horribly inaccurate information and depict people with Schizophrenia as being violent and unpredictable. However, "individuals with psychosis are rarely violent and, in fact, they are at much greater risk of causing harm to themselves than to others (F). On that note, 40 - 50 percent of people with Schizophrenia will attempt suicide in their lifetime (D).
After becoming alert to the stigma surrounding Schizophrenia I became astounded at how severe this problem is. I was completely shocked to learn how little people know about Schizophrenia, and how easy it is for the term "Schizophrenic" to be used incorrectly or derogatorily.
For instance, I was once watching the television program, "What Not To Wear", when Stacy London, one of the show's fashion coordinators, used the term "Schizophrenic" to describe a woman's out fit that looked as though it had "two personalities". This, although not meant in a derogatory sense, still contributed to the confusion that people with Schizophrenia believe they are more than one person. I was truly surprised to see that a comment like this was aired on a respectable and supposedly educational television station. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for those who have Schizophrenia, as well as their loved ones. How would it be to have people fear or misrepresent you everyday by spreading false myths about a disease you have been diagnosed with?
Not only can stigmas affect people emotionally, but they can affect their ability to get jobs, make friends, even buy housing. Such stigmas often force people to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their illness and they may avoid seeking treatment, or pretend nothing is wrong. This poses an extreme risk to their health and quality of life, and is caused simply by the fear of what others will think of them. How terrible!
Kristin Bell, a woman who has lived with Schizophrenia for most of her life, has an internet blog where she posts support to others dealing with mental illness. One of her quotes that I would like to share talks about her own experience with stigma, and part of the way it has affected her life.
My therapist tells me that I probably should NOT tell people right up front that I have a mental illness, because people won't understand and then they won't want to be friends with me. I don't know. What should I do then? Wait until they are my friend and they could hurt me even more by leaving because
they don't understand what it is to have a mental illness? What if I had been struggling with cancer for the past 20 years instead of mental illness. Surely most people would mention that to people, so why should I take on a coat of shame that isn't mine? I know, I know, maybe I should be sensible. I can't change people, but then again, how am I supposed to change myself? (A)
To me, stigma is atrocious. It is something that can truly devastate people, in some cases even permanently alter their lives, yet it is something that society contributes to everyday. However, it is something that can change. By learning more about Schizophrenia and mental illness we can help remove the stigmas surrounding Schizophrenia by sharing accurate information about this disease. Another powerful quote by Kristin Bell shares how she chose to handle stigma and it has advice I think we all can learn from.
Forget about the stigma of having a mental illness or seeing a psychiatrist. When it comes to your health, there are more important things than stigma. I know, easy for me to say. I guess having a severe illness has afforded me with little choice as to how to deal with the stigma issue. I can either pretend like there is nothing wrong with me, or be honest and open about my issues and hope that other people can relate or understand. If they can't, too bad for them. I can't change my life or who I am to make them less uncomfortable. (E)
The benefits of reducing stigma are innumerable. Foremost it would greatly enhance the lifestyle of those dealing with Schizophrenia, and secondly, it would benefit society as a whole for moving past an unnecessary issue.
To help combat stigma you can be open about mental illnesses and avoid talking about them as though they are something to be ashamed of. Would you be embarrassed to tell others that your Grandmother has been diagnosed with Diabetes? Probably not. Then why are so many people afraid to talk about mental illness?
By raising awareness about Schizophrenia and speaking out against stigmatism you can change peoples lives! It's easy to do and well worth your while. I challenge you: Make someone's life better today by speaking out against stigma and helping to make mental illness a more comfortable topic. Why not? It won't go away on its own.