A few years ago, my mother called the police when my brother said he had the desire to kill himself. He’d been admitted to a mental hospital. The lobby looked decent enough. But once we got to the back where my brother was, I could feel my soul crumple up. I already felt my brother’s did, too. Our grandmother tried to get him to say anything, while our mother seemed to just stare ahead.
I looked around to see the area he had to sleep. The bedrooms looked like bathroom stalls, with thin mattresses at the corners. Other patients wandered around the room with their thin blue gowns. Two RNs with the same colored scrubs looked as pleasant. A patient behind me told his parents, “That girl in the purple looks weird.” I happened to be wearing purple.
Derek had his first breakdown when I was in middle school. I still remember when he punched a hole in the wall. Our uncle fixed it, so now there are no remnants of it.
Over the years, I never really knew what Derek’s problem was. It took years after this incident for me to find out what schizophrenia was. It was a huge part of why my brother was the way he was.
A lot of people, even doctors, have a lot of assumptions about schizophrenia. In reading this article, I decided to examine each myth and how I feel they relate to my brother.
- Individuals with schizophrenia all have the same symptoms. There are different shades of schizophrenia, including a disorganized type and a paranoid type. Derek may have the latter. He often believes there are people out there attempting to kill us. He was even convinced that our neighbor, a close friend of our mother for years, was plotting the death of our uncle.
- People with schizophrenia are dangerous, unpredictable and out of control. The incident with Derek punching the wall wouldn’t be the last. He would continue to punch walls, but only for a short period. In fact, research shows that people with schizophrenia more often are victims of violence than perpetrators.
- Schizophrenia is a character flaw. “Lazy, lacking in motivation, lethargic, easily confused…” This pretty much describes my brother to a T. But my brother cares. Every time any one of us goes out and stays longer than usual, he’ll call us a whole bunch of times to see where we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, etc. When I got into an altercation with a family member, he was there. So whenever he asks for cigarette money for the hundredth time in a week, I’d hope that I can remember the times where he isn’t this way.
- Cognitive decline is a major symptom of schizophrenia. Symptoms of schizophrenia have nothing to do with character or personality. I hope that I can be able to remember this more often.
- There are psychotic and non-psychotic people. Dr. Demian Rose of the University of California-San Francisco says in the above Psych Central article that “the public and clinicians alike view psychosis as categorical — you’re either psychotic or you’re not — instead of symptoms residing on a continuum.” I don’t think my brother is psychotic, and not just because he’s my brother. He has conversations with us. He’s able to get up and generally have a plan: go the bathroom and get cigarettes. Of course, he needs improvement.
- Schizophrenia develops quickly. Derek started experiencing signs of schizophrenia when he went to Job Corps. Our family still doesn’t know the full details of an event that changed him permanently. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia after the incident at Job Corps and stopped looking for work.
- Schizophrenia is purely genetic. Stress and family environment can increase risk of psychosis. When my brother was a teenager, tension between him and his father caused a breakdown. I don’t know the full details of it, but I do believe it had a huge effect on him.
- Schizophrenia is untreatable. My brother has appointments every month at the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority. He’s prescribed medication that may or may not work. Without these things, I don’t even want to imagine where he’d be mentally.
- Sufferers need to be hospitalized. I’ve thought at times that Derek needed to be hospitalized. Recently he ran out of the house and started screaming. He would do better in a group home setting. In an institution where he was before? Not so much.
- People with schizophrenia can’t lead productive lives. Derek is not doing as much as he could, but it’s not to say he does nothing. He’s had a friend since middle school with whom he hangs out and who appears to understand his issues. My brother doesn’t hear most of the time. I don’t think he purposely does this, it just happens. He’s not there.
- Medications make sufferers zombies. Like I said before, without his medication, he’d probably be worse.
- Antipsychotic medications are worse than the illness itself. Antipsychotic medications help reduce symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions and other behaviors. My brother is a chain smoker. He says he smokes to relieve stress but ironically that may be one of his biggest issues. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, smoking may make antipsychotic drugs less effective.
- Individuals with schizophrenia can never regain normal functioning. Dr. Rose, quoted above, says “there’s no line that once it’s crossed signifies that there’s no hope for a person with schizophrenia.” I can’t say where my brother is going to be mentally in the future. The future is always unknown.
Derek is still with us. No matter what you want to say, he’s been through a lot. He got his GED after dropping out of school from his nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized from a shotgun wound after being mugged. He still went out at night.
In many ways, my brother is a lot stronger than I or many others mentally. I don’t know how his life is going to be years from now, whether he’ll become more self-sufficient, quit smoking, find himself. I don’t know. But I know I want to learn more about schizophrenia so I can understand my brother more and love him unconditionally, not just when the symptoms of his illness are dormant. I’d want my brother to know that those myths about his illness don’t have to always apply to him.