"Stereotypes open the door for stigma and discrimination which in turn raise barriers to living a wholesome life."
Do you remember the last time your actions were misunderstood?
Do you remember the tightness in your chest and the righteous anger in your teary eyes when you were not given a chance to speak up and challenge the label now being placed on you?
Do you remember how quickly you became an outcast and the subject of ugly stares from the people present?
For you, this might have been a one-time event or a couple of spaced out events in the past but for people living with schizophrenia, it is a daily reality.
“You know… the thing that is so wrong about being mentally ill is the terrible price you have to pay for survival.”
- Joanne Greenberg
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder that affects your ability to think and act clearly. During active episodes of schizophrenia the individual experiences delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, trouble with thinking and poor control of emotions. This makes it hard for the individual to get on normally with family, friends or other people, including the health-care team.
For people living with schizophrenia, it's hard to tell what is real and what is not."
Symptoms of schizophrenia fall into three major categories:
- Positive symptoms: Hallucinations such as hearing voices or seeing things that do not exist, paranoia and exaggerated or distorted perceptions, beliefs and behaviours.
- Negative symptoms: A loss or a decrease in the ability to initiate plans, speak, express emotions or find pleasure.
- Disorganised symptoms: Confused and disordered thinking and speech, trouble with logical thinking and sometimes bizarre behavior or abnormal movements.
While schizophrenia affects a person’s ability to function properly and enjoy a good quality of life, stereotypes about schizophrenia further deepen the negative experiences among affected individuals.
Where do these stereotypes come from
They come from a variety of reasons many of which are erroneous beliefs about the causes of the mental illness—ignorance and misinformation are easily one of the largest culprits when dealing with harmful stereotypes about the mentally ill.
Stereotypes around schizophrenia
1. It is genetic/inheritable
Having a first degree relative diagnosed with schizophrenia increases a person’s chance of having the disease by up to 10%. But the exact causes of schizophrenia remain unknown.
Aside genetics, physical, psychological and environmental factors have all been implicated in people with the condition.
"Having a genetic combination that makes you susceptible to the disease does not mean you'll develop schizophrenia."
In conclusion, although the risk of schizophrenia is higher for family members than for other members of the population, data from the Genetics Home Reference reveal that most people whose close relatives have schizophrenia will not develop the disorder.
2. It is a result of bad parenting
In 1948, psychoanalysts proposed that cold and distant parenting increased a child’s risk of developing schizophrenia. However, none of those early research works promoting this myth has satisfactorily proven it.
"While an individual's immediate environment and relationship with parents can to an extent impact their mental health they are not the cause of the disorder."
Parents and family members of people with schizophrenia continue to suffer shame, guilt and stigma each time we promulgate this myth.
3. Schizophrenics are drug addicts
An estimated 50% of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia have a history of substance abuse. This is a fact but on the flip side, it has been leveraged by certain groups of people to maliciously depict schizophrenics as drug addicts.
Here is what we know about substance abuse and schizophrenia:
"Drugs do not directly cause schizophrenia, but studies have shown that drug misuse increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or a similar illness in susceptible people."
Other potential causes of schizophrenia are highlighted below:
- Exposure to viruses or toxins in the environment
- Imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain
- Autoimmune diseases or inflammation
- Stressful or emotional life event
4. It is a spiritual attack
It is not uncommon to hear Nigerians link schizophrenia to the supernatural. The belief is so deep rooted that even when an individual makes a recovery, their relatives attribute it to a spiritual intervention.
A mental health survey conducted in Nigeria estimates that 20 -30% of the Nigerian population is suffering from a form of mental health disorder.
"The rise of mental illness among Nigerians have been linked to economic hardship, negative environmental externalities and the rising cost of decent living which has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic."
As highlighted earlier in this article, schizophrenia is due to a combination of factors especially those that interfere with the brain chemistry.
5. Schizophrenics are lazy and unemployable
What is termed laziness among schizophrenics is actually one of the negative symptoms of the disorder.
Schizophrenia symptoms are classified as being positive or negative. The negative symptoms involve the loss of ability to do or experience things—avolition. Although this avolition associated with schizophrenia impairs their ability to function, it is not the same as laziness.
Laziness is considered as a willful act, on the other hand, schizophrenics have no control over their inability to act.
"People (living) with schizophrenia sometimes exhibit a diminished level of physical and mental activity but the word lazy, with its overtone of a blameworthy unwillingness to work, is seriously misleading."
- Peter Lindley (Quora)
Many employers are biased about giving jobs to people diagnosed with schizophrenia hence their underrepresentation in the workforce. Statistics have shown that up to 20% of people who experience an episode of schizophrenia will recover completely without any further problems. More so, being in work has shown to reduce events of relapse and hospitalizations.
These stereotypes around schizophrenia breed shame and the effect can be far reaching for both the mentally ill and their loved ones. It negatively impacts the recovery time and how easily the affected individuals can get help. In a society like ours where the stigma around schizophrenia are rife, speaking up is key to end the vicious cycle of silence and shame people living with the disorder go through.
It is important for us—as enlightened individuals—to join our voices in the campaign and to educate other members of the public. If you are unsure about what to do, you can start by sharing this article with the people in your circle.
This article has been written as part of the Mental Health campaign being organized by Pharmacy Interns of the Federal Neuropschiatry Hospital, Lagos. Keep up with the campaign on Instagram.