In a new study, researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues at the University of Southern California describe some of the strategies people with schizophrenia have used to overcome the disorder and function successfully in their careers.
Their findings appear in the journal Psychiatric Services.
Investigators conducted up to three interviews each with 10 men and 10 women with schizophrenia from the Los Angeles area. All of them continued to have some psychotic symptoms even as they were employed in professional, technical, or managerial occupations.
“To the best of our knowledge, no previous studies have addressed how individuals with schizophrenia who also met some definition of recovery manage the symptoms of their disease,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, an associate research psychologist and the study’s first author.
The researchers found that the people they interviewed had adopted numerous coping strategies to prevent and deal with symptoms. These strategies included avoiding stressful situations, staying away from alcohol and drugs and taking their prescribed medications.
The interviewees also said they try to interact with people who are supportive and non-judgmental and that they use various cognitive strategies to help them reason through problematic thoughts and whether or not those thoughts are based in reality.
The subjects also mentioned religion and spirituality, and exercise and diet, as ways they prevent or deal with psychiatric instability, Cohen said. Some individuals reported that calm, soothing places help them cope, while others said they preferred to seek out more activity.
And some said jobs and educational activities could be distracting, but others said that school or career help by providing a sense of belonging.
“One big surprise — and disappointment — was the disparity between the education of these individuals and the salaries they were earning,” Cohen said. “Most of the patients studied had college or advanced degrees but still made less than $50,000 annually despite working in a large, urban city.”
Researchers discovered that even with the various coping strategies, about half of those surveyed reported having difficulty managing their daily lives, not having felt close to another person within the prior week and experiencing recent hallucinations or delusions. Sadly, these symptoms are characteristic of the disorder.
Overall, social stigma continues to be a serious problem for those affected by schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
“There is a widespread misunderstanding that individuals with schizophrenia are violent and dangerous, often homeless, and beyond help,’’ Cohen said.
Prior studies have shown that half to two-thirds of people with schizophrenia will significantly improve or fully recover, enabling them to live fulfilling and productive lives. Cohen said she hopes the findings provide encouragement for people battling the stigma of mental illness and that the study helps inform treatment for schizophrenia.
“The bulk of treatments for schizophrenia were developed from observations of individuals who are quite ill or hospitalized, rather than patients who have achieved a level of recovery,” Cohen said.
“And the prevailing medical model continues to presuppose the expertise of the clinician over the individual with the disorder. This study allows for new insights by leveraging firsthand experiences of those with schizophrenia.”