Because schizophrenia affects such a small percentage of the population, there are a number of misconceptions about the disorder. Most people have heard the word schizophrenia, but if pressed, would probably not be able to describe what it is, what the symptoms are, and what it means for the person who is diagnosed, loved ones, and the community at large.
This lack of knowledge has led to some unfortunate myths about schizophrenia that serve to build fear and prejudice against those who have the condition, rather than helping to build understanding and connection to the effective treatments that can make living with schizophrenia bearable and manageable. Without dispelling these myths, people who have the condition are less likely to get help, are ostracized, and may even commit self-harm or be harmed by others out of fear or desperation.
The most prevalent myths about schizophrenia
- People with schizophrenia are volatile and dangerous.
- Schizophrenia involves split personalities.
- Schizophrenia symptoms are the same for everyone.
- People with schizophrenia are psychotic and should be hospitalized.
- Schizophrenia is a genetic disorder.
- People with schizophrenia aren’t really sick; they’re just lazy.
- Schizophrenia can’t be treated.
The truth behind these myths is explored below.
Myth 1: People with schizophrenia are volatile and dangerous.
Most people, when they hear the word schizophrenia, call to mind not only a mental health disorder, but one that most certainly results in violent or dangerous behavior. For this reason, people are often afraid of those with schizophrenia.
However, an article from Psych Central consulted with two experts who say that, not only are people with schizophrenia no more dangerous than anyone else when under care for the condition, but they are actually more likely to be victims of violence due to the fears that others have about them and their sometimes strange behaviors. They are also more likely to cause self-harm than to harm others.
One exception to these facts, as described by the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), is that people who have untreated schizophrenia may become more violent over time. In addition, those who have a co-occurring substance use disorder may become more violent under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Marijuana, in particular, is associated with an earlier onset of schizophrenia than is typical without drug use. This can be a particular challenge, because approximately 50 percent of people with schizophrenia have co-occurring substance use disorders, according to Northeast Ohio Medical University.
Myth 2: Schizophrenia involves split personalities.
The idea that schizophrenia is related to multiple personality disorder – also known as dissociative identity disorder, or DID – is a longstanding misconception. There are many reasons for this, as described by an article from Penn State University, including the misconception that the voices heard by a person with schizophrenia are coming from other personalities within the individual.
There are at least a few differences between the two disorders that can help in making the distinction.
- Schizophrenia is a partly genetic, neurodevelopmental disorder that often runs in families and is considered to be a psychosis, while DID is usually the result of severe trauma.
- The voices heard in schizophrenia are not distinct personalities within the person. A person with DID may not hear voices at all; the identities may never hear or meet one another.
- A person with schizophrenia has other symptoms aside from hearing voices or having hallucinations; the multiple identities that manifest with DID are considered to be the main symptom of the condition.
Again, it may be noted that there are some similarities between the two disorders, and a person with DID who has personalities that talk to one another can sometimes resemble someone with schizophrenia. However, the other symptoms of schizophrenia serve as a means of making a more specific diagnosis.
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Myth 3: Schizophrenia symptoms are the same for everyone.
It is commonly believed that all people with schizophrenia hallucinate or have delusions, and that the case of having schizophrenia or not having it is defined in black and white terms. However, like many mental disorders, schizophrenia exists on a spectrum, with multiple symptoms that may manifest to a greater or lesser degree depending on the individual.
As an example, a study from Schizophrenia Research indicates that only 80 percent of people with the disorder experience hallucinations. Of these, 53 percent have hallucinatory experiences involving multiple senses, while the other 27 percent only experience hallucinations via one sense. This research is only one example of how symptoms may vary from person to person.
In fact, according to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, there are multiple types of schizophrenia, each diagnosed depending on the strength of specific symptoms. These include:
- Paranoid schizophrenia, with delusions and hallucinations that someone, or multiple people, is out to get the person
- Disorganized schizophrenia, including thought disabilities, but not necessarily involving hallucinations or delusions
- Catatonic schizophrenia, which results in a lack of connection to emotions, decreased motivation, and diminished interest in activities or life in general
- Residual schizophrenia, which may have started with delusions or hallucinations that have stopped, while leaving behind emotional disorders
- Schizoaffective disorder, which combines schizophrenia with a major mood disorder, such as depression or anxiety
In fact, because of the way symptoms may differ between individuals, some people with schizophrenia can be considered to not be dealing with psychosis, even though schizophrenia is considered to be a psychotic disorder.
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Myth 4: People with schizophrenia are psychotic and should be hospitalized.
Even though schizophrenia can be extremely debilitating, the simple fact that an individual is struggling with the disorder does not require the person to be placed in a care facility of any kind. In fact, people with schizophrenia can, with treatment, function well in day-to-activities and otherwise live full, enriching work and social lives.
While schizophrenia might once have been misunderstood and considered untreatable, this is no longer the case, and treatment through a mental health professional can help the person learn to manage symptoms and otherwise thrive. Because of this, as explained by Psych Central, people with schizophrenia who are receiving treatment can live in and contribute to their communities without the risk that this myth would imply.
Myth 5: Schizophrenia is specifically a genetic disorder.
Schizophrenia is often found clustering within families, which leads many to believe that it is exclusively inherited genetically. However, research has shown that environment has a great deal to say about whether a person who has the genetic tendency actually develops the disorder or not.
For example, research from the British Journal of Psychology studied individuals who came from families with a risk for schizophrenia but were adopted into other families. The study showed that these high-risk individuals were less likely to develop the disorder if raised in a “healthier” manner as opposed to growing up in adverse circumstances. In other words, whether or not they developed the disorder depended at least somewhat on the way they were raised.
This study, and others, implies that environment and brain development have a great deal to do with whether or not an individual develops schizophrenia.
Myth 6: People with schizophrenia aren’t really sick; they’re just lazy.
There are those who believe that schizophrenia doesn’t even exist, and that the people who struggle with it are simply lazy, have a character flaw, or are otherwise taking advantage of others. This is not only untrue; it’s also harmful to those who are struggling with this debilitating disorder, as well as to their loved ones and communities who try to make sense of the confusing and sometimes frustrating behaviors of the individual.
As explained by Psych Central, individuals with schizophrenia are often disconnected from their emotions, as well as those of others. This makes it difficult for them to feel pleasure, reward, joy, and motivation for the daily activities that most of us take for granted. While this may appear to others to be the result of a character flaw or a desire to take advantage of others, the fact is that the individual with schizophrenia actually lacks the ability to feel or experience things the way most of us do, which can have devastating emotional, mental, and physical effects.
Myth 7: Schizophrenia can’t be treated.
There are a number of treatments that can help people with schizophrenia learn to manage symptoms and lead normative lives. Most beneficial, according to NIMH, is a combination of medicines and behavioral therapies, including psychosocial therapy and rehabilitation training that can teach the individual to recognize and respond to symptoms when they occur, interact appropriately with others, and function within the workplace or during recreation. With antipsychotics, a person with schizophrenia has hope of being able to function on a day-to-day basis and enjoy a fruitful life.