The Truth About Schizophrenia

  • This SharePost will talk about Mental Illness Awareness Week [October 4 - 10]. The keyword in that sentence is awareness. What can be done, at our comfort level, to make people aware of what it's like to live with schizophrenia? Finding our voice often starts by revealing our stories to peers in a protective environment and then branching out to the general public if we are able to dare. I understand that sometimes we are not always in a position to speak out until the condition is right. This could be because we need to achieve our life goals in order to be able to inspire others and disclosing could prevent us from achieving those goals. Then we would not have an uplifting story.

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    Why do I lead this community? To quote Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian anarchist, "Only silence is shame." I refuse to live in hiding and expect to be treated as an equal by people who do not have mental illnesses. This is the goal: full inclusion in society. We are all aware of what sets us apart. Yet I believe Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to express what we can offer other people as well.

    My memoir is titled Left of the Dial because I worked as a disc jockey on a college radio station that broadcast left of the commercial end of the FM dial. It also refers to the idea that I live my life left of the dial by virtue of the diagnosis. All too often hearing voices is a radio program that no advertiser will promote with their money. So how do we get taken seriously? We promote ourselves and Mental Illness Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to do so.

    It occurs every year in the first week of October and is celebrated throughout the US and Canada, yet other countries can also adopt techniques and strategies for education and awareness. In this SharePost, I will discuss four myths and counter them with the realities. Then I will talk about how the Recovery Movement has taken shape to champion the rights of everyone living with mental illnesses and how it can help each of us.

    Myth #1: People cannot recover from schizophrenia.

    Reality: According to all five long-term studies, up to 60 percent of people recover fully or significantly improve. Again, because of the great stigma in the world, those of us doing well are not motivated to disclose so it is possible more people than you think have actually recovered. As I've said before: one person's definition of recovery is going to be different from someone's else view of what recovery looks like, so the term encompasses a wide range of possible outcomes. To limit ourselves to a narrow standard such as the absence of medication leads to despair and isn't realistic for most people.

    Myth #2: People with schizophrenia choose to act the way they do so why should I care?

    Reality: SZ is a no-fault biological brain disorder that affects a person's moods, thoughts and behavior, sometimes causing us to act in bizarre ways. We do not choose to be homeless or not take our meds. Anosognosia, the lack of awareness that you have an illness, is a symptom of SZ and results in a person refusing treatment. After all, if you weren't sick, why would you need medication? This stubborn, persistent and sometimes life-long symptom can be managed with IM [intramuscular] injectible medication as routine treatment for someone who is not medication compliant. Xavier Amador, Phd's book, I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help [2007 edition] outlines techniques for persuading a loved one to accept treatment.

  • Myth #3: People with schizophrenia are violent.

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    A person diagnosed with schizophrenia has a statistically insignificant risk of being violent compared with the general population, 8 percent versus 5 percent respectively according to one study. You are more likely to be attacked by someone you know or someone who does not have schizophrenia. People living with SZ are more often the victims of crime than the perpetrator.

    Myth #4: Schizophrenia results in total, permanent disability.

    Reality: SZ is a chronic illness, however, its course is not pre-set and people's symptoms and functioning often improve with time. By later in life much improvement can be seen-whether that is because the illness attenuates, we've lived our lives and developed trusted coping skills, or our brain chemistry changes. The key to halting the progression of the schizophrenia is early intervention with medication and therapy. The consensus among leading psychiatrists in the field is that the longer you go without medication, the more severe the illness becomes. Along with the immediate use of medication, treatment such as one-on-one talk therapy, cognitive therapy and attendance at a day program could benefit a person who is newly diagnosed. Vocational and psychosocial rehabilitation are also key factors in recovery. Indeed, recovery is possible because of the actions a person takes early on and throughout his life.

    I will end here with a look at the Recovery Movement. MHEP [Mental Health Empowerment Project], state organizations such as NYAPRS [New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services] and USPRA [US Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association] are just three key players in the recovery movement. Their goals are to bring peers together to empower and inspire each other to create satisfying lives. To quote the Billy Bragg song lyrics, "There is a power in a union." As I said in my last SharePost, we must seek help instead of going it alone when our problem is bigger than we can handle on our own.

    Seek out people who are ahead of you on this journey. Peers will have their own personalities and viewpoints, yet through the recovery movement we can all come together to support each other. A life of dignity, trust and pride is our birthright as people living with schizophrenia.

    In 2010, my SharePost for Mental Illness Awareness Week will focus on an awards presentation for people in recovery from schizophrenia. I seek always to celebrate the strides we all make in our lives to improve ourselves and conquer what can be a devastating illness.

    I will end here and post the Question of the Week, a tie-in with the Awareness Week theme.

Published On: October 04, 2009