10 Schizophrenia Myths Busted

  • 1. People with schizophrenia progressively deteriorate over time.


    Reality: The symptoms often attenuate in later life and by one's sixties could be minimal. Out of respect I will not identify the person however I can tell you this is true because I have observed improvement in someone who keeps a blog on the Internet. Having read the blog in its various incarnations for the past five years, I can indeed pinpoint when the shift occurred about one year ago.


    Committing to a medication routine and taking your meds every day as prescribed inoculates you from a much worse fate. Not all drugs relieve all symptoms in all people, however, taking some form of medication protects you from a greater loss of functioning.

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    2. Everyone with schizophrenia hears voices.


    For a lot of people diagnosed with this medical condition voices are a never-ending accompaniment to their daily life. For others, the voices come and go in intensity at different pressure points in their lives. The lucky among us - and I have friends for whom this was true - stopped hearing voices once they found the right medication. A spectrum of experiences exists here which is why some experts would refer to this illness in the plura l - as the schizophrenias - because there are so many varying manifestations. The truth is I never heard voices, yet I did have delusions and paranoia and exhibited odd behavior that leads me to believe the diagnosis of schizophrenia was correct.


    3. People who can string two sentences together couldn't possibly have schizophrenia.


    This myth - most scarily believed by psychiatrists and therapists - holds that schizophrenia is a chronic debilitating disease so that anyone doing well surely was misdiagnosed. In 1993, I wanted to start therapy so I interviewed a guy who worked out of an office in Brooklyn Heights. He did an intake which consisted of two sessions and at the second meeting he told me: "You don't have schizophrenia. You don't need medication. You can join my group but please don't tell the other people you were in a hospital last summer." Imagine. A therapist with an MSW. Telling me to lie - and - deny that I had illness. Which was the very reason I wound up in the hospital again in the first place.


    Robin Cunningham - a former Connection blogger - was actually the CEO of companies and had a 25-year career in business. He told this to a potential psychiatrist he considered seeing and the doctor told Robin he shouldn't make up stories just to feel better because he had schizophrenia and couldn't do much.


    4. People with schizophrenia are violent.


    This old chestnut gets cracked open at will by so many people so often that I doubt the stigma will ever go away. It makes this myth an evergreen topic for a SharePost. Reality: A new study has found a marginal increase in the risk of committing violent crime: 28 percent of those with schizophrenia and co-occurring substance abuse were convicted of violent crime, compared to eight per cent of those with schizophrenia and no substance abuse, and five percent of the general population. So you are just as likely to be at risk of a crime perpetrated by someone without SZ.


    A lot of people with schizophrenia who wind up in jails do so because they are arrested for petty crimes related to their mental illness. Thus the jails in the U.S. have become the largest psychiatric hospitals. Read my SharePost about Pete Earley's book Crazy for details on this.


    As well, it is more often the case that people with schizophrenia are the victims of crimes because they collect disability checks and might live in a bad neighborhood. I was lucky when I lived in the housing project and collected SSD because I had a fair amount of street smarts. Yet it was obvious to the local drug dealer on the 9th floor who the residents of the apartment program were and who weren't. Some of the ex-patients became his regular customers.

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    So the reality is not that people with schizophrenia are violent. The truth is people with schizophrenia could be easy prey for the unscrupulous.


    5. You or your children are guaranteed to get schizophrenia if it runs in your family.


    In one study: children of one parent with schizophrenia had about a 13 percent chance of developing the illness and that increased to about 35 percent if both parents had schizophrenia. In another study: identical twins had a 48 percent chance of developing schizophrenia. You can access the heredity charts online.


    Robin Cunningham's uncle and aunt both had this condition and yet his father escaped their fate. My brother has chosen to have kids and as a proud aunt I'm glad he was undeterred in his decision. [Although possibly his choice was made easier because he saw that I recovered. To be honest I don't know if my brother understood the severity of the diagnosis. I was 22 when I had the breakdown and he was 19. Though he visited me when I was in the hospital we never spoke about my diagnosis after I came home. I cannot imagine his feelings about what happened to me because they were never discussed.]


    6. Schizophrenia only occurs in young adults.


    A type of SZ called late-onset schizophrenia can occur in one's forties or fifties or even sixties. How do you fare if you develop this illness later in life as opposed to when you are young? The prognosis appears to be good if the person continues to take their medication. Read the SharePost written by Dr. Paul Ballas about the topic of late-onset schizophrenia for more details.


    7. People with schizophrenia don't need medication and they can cure themselves of this disease. They can slowly taper off the medication in the right way so that they can live without the drugs.


    This crown jewel of stigma I suspect is often cherished by people who have never been psychotic. Am I to believe that a paranoid delusional life is acceptable; that I should have the right to choose psychosis as a lifestyle? The reality is everyone I know who was diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective who instituted a drug holiday relapsed and had to be hospitalized again. The risk is just too great to entertain messing up your brain chemistry permanently. Trust me you do not want to reach this point of no return.


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    Listen: the reason people become homicidal or suicidal is precisely because they did not get access to treatment. The commitment laws are so stringent in the U.S. that a crime most likely will be committed before someone gets help. I heard that Andrew Goldstein-the guy who pushed Kendra Webdale in front of an oncoming New York City subway train-sought help and was turned away.


    Read the SZ magazine winter 2010 feature article "Violence and Schizophrenia: Taming the criminal myths" for a look at what happens when people fall through the cracks.


    8. Hearing voices is the hallmark symptom of schizophrenia.


    The true classic symptom of schizophrenia is cognitive deficit syndrome according to leading researchers in the field. See my SharePosts on cognitive deficits and cognitive fitness for more on this topic.


    9. People with schizophrenia have the right to refuse treatment because that is their civil liberty. So we shouldn't care if they wind up homeless because that is their choice.


    On some matters the ACLU could be right however when it comes to allowing anyone in the Beloved Community to be psychotic and homeless that is human cruelty and an injustice. In numerous cases where people with schizophrenia were treated involuntarily and then got "sprung" by a civil rights group: those individuals returned to the streets only to decompensate further. Nobody deserves to live on the streets. Nobody with schizophrenia who lives on the streets achieves any benefit from doing so. Case closed.


    10. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia cannot recover.


    This is simply not true. All five long-term studies indicate that upwards of 60 percent of the people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover fully or significantly improve. For those who do less well good improvement is also possible. The reason this myth exists is that unfortunately too many people still do not recover and those are the ones being written about in the media and championed by organizations like NAMI who need to obtain funding to advocate for people with "serious and persistent mental illness." Even that term can be considered a lie because a great many people recover. The reason the general public does not equate having schizophrenia with being successful in life is that those of us with SZ who are doing well most likely will not disclose because the stigma against us is serious and persistent. So we are actually penalized for doing well because we have no one to trumpet our accomplishments to, whereas other people without this illness who do well are given pats on the back. So we toil away in anonymity. This not only does a great disservice to society it harms people with schizophrenia who are newly diagnosed and need role models or inspirational guides.


Published On: January 24, 2010