People have used “schizophrenic” as a shorthand for “irrational beyond reason” since the mental affliction was named. Things have gotten comparatively better in recent years, as awareness of mental health issues has increased. But that is still a low bar.
The reason for the stigma is obvious: Schizophrenia is hard for a person to understand. The key symptom to schizophrenia is hallucinations—the “hearing voices” that has become so ubiquitous in its popular understanding. How do you know if someone else is hearing something that is completely in their head? Many people simply disbelieve sufferers at times.
But when people disbelieve in something that is real, it is usually only because they don’t understand it. After all, if you had no way of perceiving sound, then someone explaining speech to you would also beggar belief. Once you know about seismic vibrations, that might change.
So, let’s talk about what schizophrenia is and what it does to the people who have it.
Dealing with the Misconceptions
The first big observation you are going to want to know in order to understand schizophrenia better is that it is not just “hearing voices”. It is true that people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. But this a symptom, not the disease.
Moreover, people with schizophrenia are often imagined as incurable, unsalvageable, and insane beyond repair. This is the worst part about the stigma against it, not just because it isn’t true, but because it leads people to believe that schizophrenia is a death sentence.
There was a time, as recently as the 1960s, when the only treatments available for schizophrenia were chemically induced coma and lobotomy. We do not live in those times anymore. Nowadays, there are plenty of treatments for schizophrenia available.
The Causes of Schizophrenia
Part of the problem with schizophrenia is that it is such a complex issue in the brain that it is not completely understood. There are a few things that we can be sure of. For instance, we know that it affects the speech and planning centers of the brain. This has allowed medical professionals to develop medication for the ailment by treating it like damage in those areas.
But while doctors know where in the brain it has an effect, and generally know what effect it has, the question of why is still a mystery.
Schizophrenia is the result of a disassociation between the temporal lobe, which receives and processes much of the sensory input in the brain, and the frontal lobe, which makes high-level logical decisions about everything. The issue manifests as a person “experiencing” their thoughts rather than thinking them, resulting in them having thoughts, but not recognizing them.
The end result is that sensory input and waking thought become conflated, with the sufferer having little to no ability to separate the two apart from one another.
The Symptoms of Schizophrenia
The result of this issue is further reaching than you might think. Once a person cannot tell the difference between their thoughts and the voices of those around them, then their sense of reality gets shifted in other parts of their perception as well. It is common for people with schizophrenia to develop magical thinking as a result of, to an outsider, clear delusions.
This manifests in three main ways, with the most commonly known way being their “psychotic” symptoms. The others are the “negative” symptoms and the “cognitive” symptoms.
The word “psychotic” is commonly misunderstood as well. It is assumed to be related to psychopathy due to similar etymology. But it actually has nothing to do with psychopathy.
Psychosis is when a person experiences some disconnection from reality that is the result of issues with perception. This is a hard symptom for the sufferer to notice, but an easy one for others to pick up on. To the sufferer, it will seem as though something irrational or unbelievable is happening right in front of their eyes, or just within earshot. Denying it would seem irrational.
This is where you find your hallucinations and delusions.
These symptoms come as an indirect result of the brain issues we mentioned earlier. When we say, “negative symptoms”, what we mean is “symptoms which detract from a person’s ability to function as a person”. If your brain has issues, whether that outwardly presents as schizophrenia or not, you are going to have problems planning and making decisions.
Other negative symptoms of schizophrenia are having trouble feeling pleasure, having low energy, and sometimes actively avoiding social interaction.
When the word “cognitive” appears in much of mental health, it is usually referring to a person’s own internal thoughts and feelings. In this case, schizophrenia causes a person’s thoughts and feelings to become confused and disordered, making it hard for them to retain information, make decisions, or focus and pay attention.
The Treatment of Schizophrenia
As we mentioned earlier, we are long past the days of lobotomy as a form of mental health treatment. There are tons of medications you can try to help deal with schizophrenia.
The variety of medications might seem daunting, and many people fear that they might take the “wrong one”. But options are actually a good thing. If one of them doesn’t work, makes you feel like a zombie, or has some other issue, then you can just switch to another one.
Antipsychotic drugs like prochlorperazine are common, as is olanzapine.
Schizophrenic people are not broken. They are not lesser, and they are not beyond help. They are people who are suffering from a disease. If you are going to take away anything from what you have learned today, take away this: A schizophrenic person is not harmful.
You have noticed that nowhere did we mention violence as a behavioral issue of schizophrenic people. That’s because it isn’t one. There is a stereotype that schizophrenic people are violent. But that is just bigotry against the mentally ill. If you want to learn more, visit the New Waters Recovery home page, where we talk about mental health and its treatments.