As a woman living with bipolar disorder, I understand mental illness-related stigma. I understand the damage it causes and the impact it can have on a person’s quality of life. But I cannot tell you that I understand the stigma associated with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is, without a doubt, the most stigmatized mental illness.
Bipolar disorder often is associated with intelligence, creativity, highs and lows. But schizophrenia is viewed differently. Society often is confronted with negative imagery: A homeless man or woman, dirt under their fingernails, mumbling to themselves; bars on hospital windows where they are confined and, above all, violence.
The stigma connected to schizophrenia, and to those who live with the illness, is different from that connected to people living with depression or bipolar disorder. It is harder to shatter; it is harder for people to understand.
Stepping out and putting a face and a name to my illness was anything but easy. But more people are doing this, and in doing so, we can lessen the stigma.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua, who is featured in the documentary “Living With Schizophrenia: A Call for Hope and Recovery.” Joshua was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 17 following psychotic symptoms. He describes his experience living with the illness. Joshua effectively puts a face and name — a life story — to a horribly stigmatized illness.
Q. Joshua, you were an integral part of the documentary “Living With Schizophrenia: A Call for Hope and Recovery.” Was it difficult for you to put a face and a name to an illness which carries a great deal of stigma?
A. It is a little difficult to be open about my illness when I think about some of the stigma out there. I chose to do it because I want to help promote the fact that we’re not all axe murderers.
Q. What do you hope viewers and readers can gain from your experience?
A. I hope to provide a little insight for your readers regarding schizophrenia and the surrounding issues of stigma. It was exciting to work on the project and I don’t mind being labeled.
Q. Joshua, you were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 17. It is difficult for people who do not live with the illness to understand the confusion surrounding it. How do you describe your first episode?
A. I was definitely confused … My family and I were in denial when I was initially diagnosed. It’s hard to describe the nightmare without reinforcing negative stigma.
Q. Those living with schizophrenia often are deemed “violent.” It might surprise people to know that the attempted suicide rate is a staggering 50 percent. What are your thoughts on this?
A. Probably many of the suicides are related to the stigma. I imagine that many people experience persecution or discrimination because of the stigma.
Q. Law enforcement often intervenes before a person can be diagnosed and treated. Do you think that those in the field could benefit from more education on the illness?
A. I believe law enforcement fulfills an important role for folks who don’t want help but may need it. My advice for field officers would be to sign up for crisis intervention team training. I think there should be incentives for those who volunteer.
Q. In the documentary, you talk about the importance of family—your father is a fantastic support to you. What advice would you give to those who do not have family support? Mental illness can be isolating and lonely.
A. There are a lot of folks who do not have family support for one reason or another. They might have treated their family really bad and burnt bridges … Maybe the family is embarrassed due to the views of society. Whatever the case, it helps to have support. There are many programs and centers out there that offer peer-to-peer support … Peers can help fill the void when family support is not there.
Q. You state that being able to share your experience with mental illness is a “privilege” as it works to keep you stable. Can you elaborate?
A. I could not have told someone six or eight years ago that recovery is possible. I feel privileged to be able to share that with people. Every time I’m able [to share] it makes me feel better about myself and my recovery.
Q. Do you have anything you would like to share with our readers?
A. I have been a long time e-mail subscriber to PsychCentral.com and I truly appreciate the articles and opinions expressed here.
Joshua has worked for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and has run peer-to-peer programs, sharing his story. In addition, he worked in a local jail, helping individuals with mental illness in the justice system. “The most meaningful thing about that work is [that] I’m using the same system to give back to the community that has actually given me the life I’m living,” he said.