Schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions. So, we’re busting its biggest myths to help reduce the stigma surrounding it.
In the 2006 edition of his book “Surviving Schizophrenia,” psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey refers to schizophrenia as “the modern-day equivalent of leprosy.”
Over a decade later, his statement isn’t far off. Myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia persist.
Due to stereotypes and inaccurate media depictions, schizophrenia continues to be shrouded in mystery, confusion, and fear.
The reality? Schizophrenia is a chronic disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and acts. Fewer than 1% of people in the United States have schizophrenia. While it’s a challenging condition, with treatment, many people go on to have meaningful, fulfilling lives.
Whether your loved one has schizophrenia or you’d like to better understand this condition, here are some of the most pervasive myths, followed by the facts.
Many people confuse schizophrenia with dissociative identity disorder (DID). This is somewhat understandable, as schizophrenia technically translates to “split mind” from Greek.
However, instead of split personalities, schizophrenia refers to a split from reality. People with schizophrenia may have hallucinations and delusions, which are known as positive symptoms. This means that they can experience things that aren’t there. Or, they may believe things that aren’t factually true.
In contrast, DID — which is also highly misunderstood and sensationalized — involves having several fragmented identities versus a single, whole self.
While schizophrenia is now a single diagnosis, symptoms vary greatly among people with the condition. Some see or hear things that aren’t there (visual and auditory hallucinations), while others have difficulties paying attention, remembering information, and staying motivated.
In fact, people with schizophrenia may even experience different symptoms at different times, and the severity of the symptoms may vary among individuals or from episode to episode.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-4) even differentiated between various subtypes of schizophrenia:
- paranoid: extreme suspicion or feelings of persecution
- hebephrenic or disorganized: disorganized thinking, inappropriate emotional reactions, and speech disturbances without delusions or hallucinations
- undifferentiated: a combination of schizophrenia symptoms, such as being confused and paranoid
- residual: less intense hallucinations or delusions with more “negative” symptoms, such as flat affect, slowed speech, and lack of motivation
- catatonic: little to no movement or interaction with the environment, or mimicking another person’s speech or movement
However, these subtypes were removed
When thinking about schizophrenia, the key is to realize that every individual is, well, an individual.
There is a slightly higher rate of aggression among people with schizophrenia. But in some cases, that increased risk may be due to substance use rather than the condition itself, as
Instead of the perpetrators of violence, people with schizophrenia are often the victims of violent crime.
Plus, they tend to pose a greater danger to themselves than to other people. A large-scale,
“It’s quite rare to have a big drop in functioning,” says Demian Rose, MD, PhD, the medical director at the UCSF Path Program at the University of California, San Francisco. This is a treatment program for young people at risk of developing psychosis or experiencing a first episode of psychosis.
Instead, schizophrenia tends to develop slowly. Dr. Rose notes that initial symptoms often show up in adolescence. Here are some early symptoms, followed by examples:
- unusual thinking: having thoughts that don’t feel like your own or familiar things feeling strange, confusing, or frightening
- misperception of reality: feeling like your mind is playing tricks on you
- paranoid thinking: thinking that others are wishing you harm or feeling fearful around people
- confused thinking: not understanding what people are saying or difficulty remembering simple things
- withdrawal: distancing yourself from loved ones or losing interest in everyday activities
Symptoms occur on a continuum. In schizophrenia’s beginning stages, a person may not hear voices, but they might hear whispers that they can’t make out, says Dr. Rose.
Experts recommend seeking treatment in the “prodromal” period before the onset of schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia “is an eminently treatable and manageable chronic illness, just like diabetes or heart disease,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, a psychologist and co-author of “Schizophrenia for Dummies.”
Treatments vary based on the person’s specific symptoms, challenges, and needs. In general, effective treatment includes taking antipsychotic medication and going to therapy.
Antipsychotic medication helps reduce hallucinations and delusions. Psychotherapy is also important for reducing symptoms and helping with:
- effectively managing stress
- participating in daily activities
- accomplishing goals that are important to you
- improving your quality of life
In addition, family support along with academic or professional support is incredibly helpful.
While the exact causes of schizophrenia are unknown, experts do know that it’s due to a combination of factors. For example, having one parent with schizophrenia can increase someone’s chance of having the condition by 13%.
If one identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin has a 44% chance of having it.
But genetics is just one piece of the complex puzzle. Environment is another piece. Contributing environmental factors may include:
- viral or bacterial infections
- malnutrition, illness, and maternal stress during pregnancy
- major stress during critical parts of development
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the observations in the study may not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Actually, multiple medical conditions can cause a range of hallucinations — hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and feeling things that don’t exist.
These conditions include:
In fact, this is one reason why the Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance (formerly The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America, or SARDAA) wants schizophrenia reclassified as a neurological disease.
Most people with schizophrenia don’t need to stay in a hospital and do best attending outpatient treatment and living at home.
However, when a person is experiencing a crisis, a short-term hospital stay is important. For example, this may be when a person is:
- having severe symptoms
- experiencing a psychotic episode
- talking about hurting themselves or others
- experiencing severe side effects from medication
- needing to change their medication
Again, times when hospitalization is necessary depend on each person’s circumstances.
People with schizophrenia differ greatly in the severity of their symptoms, and, naturally, their circumstances and life situations.
It’s true that some people with schizophrenia struggle. For example, research suggests that schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are linked to homelessness.
However, many individuals with schizophrenia thrive. They have jobs, families, and fulfilling hobbies.
The key to living well with schizophrenia, or any chronic illness, is to find the right treatment and to stick with it.
Despite decreased stigma around mental ill-health, misinformation and negative stereotypes about schizophrenia persist.
Schizophrenia is a difficult disorder that causes different symptoms in each person who has it. Some experience delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking. Others may have difficulties with processing information, paying attention, making decisions, and achieving their goals.
While schizophrenia is challenging and complex, it’s also highly treatable. With treatment — usually a combination of medication and therapy — many people lead satisfying, healthy lives.