People who have schizophrenia often experience delusions, false beliefs about some aspect of the world. While we may all carry around an occasional false belief (“rush hour traffic won’t be so bad today”), someone with schizophrenia has false beliefs that seriously impact their ability to function in their life. “My boss is out to kill me,” is going to make holding down a regular job a challenge.
What you may not know is that a lot of people with schizophrenia carry around a similar set of false beliefs. Furthermore, these beliefs can change over time as a result of sociopolitical and cultural changes within society.
A recent study (Skodlar, et al., 2008) of 120 records of initial admissions of people with schizophrenia to a psychiatric hospital describes how delusions have changed over the years:
1. Religious and magical delusions were the least prevalent during 1941-1980, during which time Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia – a communist dictatorship. The Yugoslavian government suppressed religion, and the less people practiced or thought about it, the researchers theorize, the less frequently it appeared in schizophrenic delusions. From 1981 and 2000 — as communism crumbled and Slovenians were allowed to find God again — reports of people claiming to be possessed, haunted or tormented by spirits rose.
2. Paranoid delusions, feelings of persecution and the belief that someone is out to get you appear to be unique to the 20th century. “The trend is primarily ascribed to urbanization, industrialization and technical developments with much new information and communication transfer, exerting considerable ‘cultural pressure’ on an individual,” the researchers write. An increasing sense of individualism might add to the problem – the 1970s weren’t called “The Me Decade” for nothing. The repression of political dissidents by Yugoslavia’s communist regime probably didn’t help either.
3. After radio and television were invented, more and more patients reported delusions with technical themes, including radio waves, voices, sounds, images – anything beamed to them from somewhere else. These appeared to be symptoms no one had noticed or recorded before. After all, it’s hard to believe you’re being bombarded by television signals when the TV hasn’t been invented yet.
It’s fascinating to read how delusions appear to keep up with the changes in science, politics and technology, demonstrating a cultural and sociological component to mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
Read the full article at TIME: The Evolution of Insanity
Skodlar, B. et al. (2008). Psychopathology of schizophrenia in Ljubljana (Slovenia) from 1881 to 2000: Changes in the content of delusions in schizophrenia patients related to various sociopolitical, technical and scientific changes. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 54(2), 101-111.