10 Top Myths About Schizophrenia

by Rachel Star Withers Patient Advocate

The first hallucinations I can remember from childhood are the faces in the trees. I saw them everywhere, especially at night. Whether they had a twisted laugh or demonic eyes, they were always scary. I have schizophrenia, and I still see the faces in the trees. I was diagnosed at age 20, and for the past 14 years, I’ve been committed to helping people understand what schizophrenia is—and what it’s not. These are the biggest misconceptions I tackle most often.

Woman's lips whispering into man's ear

MYTH: All Schizophrenics Hear Voices.

Auditory hallucinations can be a symptom of schizophrenia, but they’re not required for diagnosis. Of the five main symptoms—delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior, and “negative” symptoms (which include a decrease in the ability to make plans, speak, or express emotion)—only two have to be present for diagnosis.

Auditory hallucinations are also present in other disorders and illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, meningitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, migraines, and Parkinson’s.These hallucinations can manifest not only as voices but also random sounds, music, singing, whispers, ticking, buzzing.

Many people assume schizophrenics hear hallucinations inside their head. But often they sound as if they’re coming from behind us, another room, from an object, or even a person. I can take the batteries out of every clock in the house, but I still hear a steady ticking as if someone is holding a wristwatch to my ear. I keep a dehumidifier running all night for white noise; it drowns out the ticks so I can sleep.

MYTH: Schizophrenics are Crazy People.

Many people with schizophrenia work, go to school, have families, and maintain a fairly normal life. In fact, going to school or having a job can help keep patients on track—and help them move forward after a breakdown, said Steven Jewell, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown said in an article. "People feel better about themselves if they're doing something productive.” It took me five years, but I graduated with my Bachelor's degree summa cum laude. The hardest part of college for me wasn’t the workload—it was finding the correct classroom. I would get lost in the halls because the numbers on the doors appeared to twist around. I carried around my schedule with the locations, and regularly asked other students to point me in the right direction.

Mirror with spiderweb cracks

MYTH: Schizophrenics are Dangerous.

People with schizophrenia are actually 14 times more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator, according to a study in the Schizophrenia Bulletin. Unmanaged symptoms of schizophrenia, including disorganized thoughts and delusions can lead to homelessness, placing people in more vulnerable situations. What’s more, schizophrenics are more likely to hurt themselves rather than hurt others. About 1 in 20 commit suicide.

The only big fight I have been in is my first-and-only amateur boxing match. I walked away with two black eyes, a bloody nose, busted lip, and concussion. My opponent strolled away with her first win. Dangerous is not what she would have used to describe me.

MYTH: Schizophrenia is Caused by a Traumatic Experience.

Scientists have yet to find an exact cause, and there are likely many factors that could play a role. One theory? It develops as the result of some interaction between genes and the environment, meaning that a trigger, such as a virus or even problems during birth, can cause the disease to develop in susceptible people. Changes in brain chemistry and structure, such as those that affect the brain during puberty, may also be a cause, according the National Institute of Mental Health.

Most people with schizophrenia are diagnosed between the ages of 16 and 30, and some people like me have symptoms in childhood, though that’s pretty rare. Seeing monsters was normal for me growing up. I thought everyone saw things like that until, at age 17, I mentioned it to a friend and they had no idea what I was talking about.

I personally like the idea of mutant genes and hope my schizophrenia counts toward my recruitment into the X-Men. Wolverine, I anxiously await my invitation.

MYTH: People With Schizophrenia Have Multiple Personalities.

This is a separate brain disorder that’s now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, and this condition is often tied to severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood, according to the American Psychiatric Association. “(People with the condition) are sometimes misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, because their belief that they have different identities could be interpreted as a delusion,” writes David Spiegel, M.D., professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Unlike with true schizophrenia, however, their symptoms do not improve with antipsychotic medication.

Woman's hands reading book in cafe

MYTH: Schizophrenics are Not Intelligent.

People with schizophrenia have all levels of intelligence, yet people tell me all the time, “You can’t really have schizophrenia because you can read and talk.” There’s some research that suggests that what may matter more than individual IQ is whether a person’s level of intelligence varies significantly from the average in their family, according to a study in JAMA Psychiatry.

"Merely not doing well in school is not predictive," said lead author Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics at Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine in an article. "It is all in the deviation from the family expectation. If you have poor cognitive performance, but you come from a family where that is normal, then you do not have an increased risk of illness."

The problems arise when symptoms aren’t controlled. Disorganized thought patterns interfere with memory and can make it hard to stay focused. Hallucinations and delusions can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

MYTH: Schizophrenics are Always Psychotic.

People with schizophrenia can have psychotic episodes that last a few minutes to a few years. But what exactly is psychosis? Most simply, it’s a mental state where a person loses touch with reality. Hallucinations (seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there) and delusions (false beliefs) are types of psychosis.

I tend to hallucinate 90% of the time, but I'm aware the hallucinations aren't real and I'm able to go about my life. Mirrors always toy with me. When I look at my reflection, I don’t see it correctly. My eyes confuse me, I often appear strange and unrecognizable. Another common hallucination I have: People’s faces appear to be masks, which makes TV and movies can be hard to interpret. I’ll be too distracted trying to figure out what is wrong with the actors’ movements and distortions to pay attention to the story. Surprisingly, I never have a problem with cartoons, which is why “King of the Hill,” “Archer,” “South Park” and “Bob’s Burgers” play nonstop in my house. Yep. Yep. Yep. Mmhmm.

Young woman putting blanket around senior woman's shoulders as she looks out window

MYTH: People With Schizophrenia Can’t Take Care of Themselves.

Independence varies person to person and can change when symptoms are not under control. People experience schizophrenia differently, and everything from stress, medication, and environmental situations can impact symptoms. For some, it may be debilitating and even be dangerous to live alone. Others, meanwhile, will have no problems being on their own.

I currently live with my parents (I know…super cool). I can go weeks with no issues and then suddenly retreat from society and not want to leave my room. My dad checks on me if he hasn’t seen me around all day, and he always makes sure I’m eating. He and my mom are my safety net.

Woman rolling suitcase while walking in airport terminal

MYTH: People With Schizophrenia Shouldn't Travel.

We can explore the world safely! Many are shocked to learn I regularly take road trips and work in multiple states. However, just as with any condition, a traveler with schizophrenia needs to take precautions to bring all medicines, check in regularly with family and medical professionals, and have a plan for what to do if something happens. I always do all three.

I have backpacked through Europe alone, spoke on a media tour through Asia, and regularly fly across the U.S. for my job. No one knows I have schizophrenia unless I tell them. My biggest problem is matching my flight number with the correct gate. Once, after an hour of wandering, confused and frustrated, I finally found a worker and asked for help. There are times though when I know I feel “off” and may not be mentally all here, so I give the flight attendant a heads-up that I have a mental disorder and can get a bit confused at times.

Woman talking to coworkers about assignment

MYTH: People With Schizophrenia Can’t Work or Manage Others.

Schizophrenics hold all types of jobs: from fast food to volunteer work to doctors to teachers to scientists. My ability to work has changed throughout my life. Working 40 hours a week 9 to 5 isn’t good for me. After about five hours of doing the same thing, I start to get on edge. However, working multiple part-time jobs (sometimes 50 hours a week) is wonderful. Shorter shifts and being able to switch to a different environment helps me stay more aware and grounded. Working is great for people with schizophrenia—it helps remind you that you are a part of society and not alone.

Rachel Star Withers
Meet Our Writer
Rachel Star Withers

Rachel Star Withers is an entertainer, speaker, video producer, and schizophrenic. She has appeared on TV shows including: MTV’s “Ridiculousness,” “TruTV,” “America’s Got Talent” and is the host of "Insanity with Rachel Star") on Amazon Prime. She grew up seeing monsters, hearing people in the walls, and intense urges to hurt herself. Rachel creates videos documenting her schizophrenia, ways to manage ,and let others like her know they are not alone and can still live an amazing life. She has written Lil Broken Star: Understanding Schizophrenia for Kids and a tool for schizophrenics, To See in the Dark: Hallucination and Delusion Journal.