Schizophrenia – The Top 10 Myths and Misconceptions

Posted on December 15th, 2012

What happens when you or someone you love no longer lives in reality? From imagining enemies around every corner to experiencing confused thoughts that make normal life impossible, schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder that makes it hard to tell what’s real-and what’s not. As a very complex illness that almost always requires ongoing mental health treatment, it’s no surprise that schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood psychiatric disorders. This has led to many myths and misconceptions. Following are ten of the most common myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia:

  1. People with schizophrenia are violent. The vast majority of people who struggle with schizophrenia are not aggressive or violent at all. In fact, most schizophrenics prefer little to limited social interaction. There are occasional exceptions, but those incidents usually involve individuals with schizophrenia who are experiencing grandiose and / or persecutory delusions. It’s actually far more common for someone with this disorder to harm themselves rather than someone else. One review of more than 50 studies examining the link between schizophrenia and suicide found that about 5% of schizophrenics end up taking their own lives.[1]
  2. If someone in your family has schizophrenia, you’ll get it, too. Some mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, have a strong genetic component. The greatest risk is for children born to a mother and father who both have the disorder. Recently, scientists have devised a test that will determine a person’s genetic risk for developing schizophrenia. The test examines several sets of genes linked to the disorder, and then calculates a score based on an individual’s genetic make-up.[2]
  3. Schizophrenia is caused by genetics. While DNA does appear to play a role in most cases, it’s not the only risk factor for development. Schizophrenia, like other psychiatric disorders, is believed to develop due to a combination of factors. Along with genes, other potential factors include:
    • Poor womb conditions: Science suggests that conditions in the mother’s womb, including poor nutrition and exposure to viruses such as the flu, can increase a child’s chances of developing the disorder. For example, researchers in one study linked babies born during a famine to an increased risk of developing schizophrenia as adults.[3]
    • Older paternal age: Children born to older fathers have a greater risk of developing schizophrenia. Experts believe this is due to an increased chance of genetic mutation in fathers over 50.
    • Early childhood health condition: Research has shown a connection between the development of schizophrenia and children who suffer from seizures or infections in early childhood.
    • Trauma: Children and adolescents who have experienced severe stress or trauma have a greater risk of developing schizophrenia.
    • Drug or alcohol abuse: Although there appears to be a connection, researchers aren’t yet sure if drug and alcohol use contributes to the development of schizophrenia or if early symptoms of the disorder make substance abuse more likely.
  4. It’s an untreatable condition. Schizophrenia is generally regarded as a lifelong psychiatric disorder. However, with appropriate treatment, some people with schizophrenia are able to live fulfilling lives including having families and careers. Medication can help reduce hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thoughts. Other treatment options may include psychotherapy, life skills and social skills training, family therapy, and vocational training. By working with a mental health professional, people living with schizophrenia can learn problem-solving skills that will help them in daily life. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve the prognosis, but it’s never too late to get into treatment.
  5. Individuals with schizophrenia can’t hold jobs or go to school. Antipsychotic medications make it possible for many people with schizophrenia to function quite well. People who regularly take antipsychotic medication and work with a mental health professional have the best chance of keeping their symptoms manageable. If psychotic episodes have already interfered with the ability to live a normal life, social skills training and job counseling can be particularly beneficial.
  6. Antipsychotic medications are worse than the illness itself. Antipsychotic drugs have helped countless individuals with schizophrenia successfully manage their symptoms. Granted, these powerful medications do have many potential side effects, so ultimately the benefits and costs must be weighed. Also, there is often some trial and error involved before finding the most effective and tolerable medication and dose, as not every medication will work for every patient. That makes it critical to work closely with a psychiatrist who can monitor the medication’s effectiveness and side effects, and make adjustments or changes when necessary.
  7. Electroshock therapy is barbaric and dangerous. Typically referred to as ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, this treatment can be a life-saving option when traditional therapies are not working. In fact, somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000 Americans receive ECT for various conditions each year. During treatment, the patient receives a controlled electrical shock that causes a seizure, essentially resetting the brain. The use of anesthesia and better control of the currents have made ECT a much safer treatment in recent years. However, serious side effects, such as memory loss, may occur, so a decision to undergo ECT should be carefully considered.
  8. Individuals with schizophrenia must be institutionalized. Going by what we see on TV and in movies, it would seem that a diagnosis of schizophrenia diagnosis always leads to a commitment to a mental hospital. Fortunately, that’s not always the case. While hospitalization is typically required for an acute psychotic episode, only a small percentage of individuals with schizophrenia require long-term inpatient care. Some with the diagnosis are rarely, if ever, hospitalized. Many hospitalizations occur when individuals stop taking their medication and become symptomatic as a result.
  9. There’s no support for individuals with schizophrenia – or for their families. Like many other serious mental illnesses, there’s a stigma attached to those living with schizophrenia. But that doesn’t mean someone living with the disorder is consigned to a life of loneliness and isolation. Whether you live with the illness or you have a loved one who does, you can find a support group or outreach program. Many of these programs offer resources for everything from pinpointing ways to avoid symptom relapse to helping a non-compliant schizophrenic.
  10. I can’t help a family member with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is definitely a very challenging disorder. Paranoia and lack of insight can interfere with a loved one’s ability to recognize or accept their need for treatment. If you feel a family member is a danger to himself/herself or others, consult with an attorney or mental health professional regarding the involuntary commitment laws in your state. For a loved one already in treatment, be respectful, supportive, and patient during their journey – it might just be the toughest one they’ll ever make. In the meantime, don’t neglect your own needs. Find a self-help group with a supportive network of people who are in the same situation. Not only will they likely have access to the resources you need to help your loved one, you can also benefit from the invaluable insight and experiences of other group members who’ve been walking in your shoes.

Schizophrenia is one of the most serious psychiatric disorders, but there is hope. If you or a loved one struggles with this chronic disorder, don’t go it alone. Work with a mental health professional who’s experienced in treating and managing schizophrenia.

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