What It’s Like to Live with Schizophrenia: Separating Myths from Facts

Our cultural perception of schizophrenia paints a negative image of the disorder that is far from reality. Through promoting education and acceptance, we can shatter myths about split personalities and hallucinationsviolence, and the supposed schizophrenic lifestyle in order to create a landscape that fosters healing through open communication, making it easier for people living with schizophrenia to get treatment.

Delusions of government conspiracies—the feeling that you’re the only one in on a secret that could tear apart the world as we know it—imaginary friends and associates that are, in fact, nothing but a product of the mind—we’ve all seen or read some piece of media that portrays schizophrenia, and most of them likely have storylines involving at least one of these ideas. But how much of what we think we know is actually an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia?

The importance of promoting the acceptance of mental illness is becoming more recognized, and in recent years numerous celebrities have come out about their anxiety, their depression, their bipolar disorder, and other disorders. Yet schizophrenia seems to be the “black sheep” in the world of mental health challenges, with little public discussion about what it’s truly like to live with, leaving us with inaccurate media representations to shape our cultural image of the illness. And yet, if we are to support our friends or family members living with schizophrenia, it’s vital that we first do our best to understand what they are really going through.

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Split Personalities and Hallucinations

Perhaps the biggest misrepresentation of schizophrenia is the manifestation of imaginary friends or alternate personalities. A perfect example is the movie A Beautiful Mind, where main character John Nash, based on a real-life mathematician who lived with schizophrenia, interacts with numerous characters throughout the movie who (spoiler alert!) end up being figments of his imagination.

While people with schizophrenia do experience hallucinations, both visual and auditory, they are most commonly auditory and take the form of voices. On the rarer occasion that the hallucinations are visual, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll take the form of full human figures with distinct personalities. On the other hand, possessing multiple psyches is actually a symptom of dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder (DID). In such cases, these personalities are within you, in your mind, and don’t manifest into distinct hallucinations of people with unique personalities.

A Propensity for Violence

There’s a cultural perception that people living with schizophrenia tend to be dangerous and volatile, always balancing on the edge of committing a violent act. This belief is supported by the media’s focus on crimes committed by people with mental health challenges, as well as a pattern of fiction that pushes this notion. Just look at the movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc—the lead character shows symptoms of schizophrenia, and the narrative follows her as she leads an entire war using her hallucinations as motivation. Yet data suggests that people living with schizophrenia are more often the victims of violence, rather than the perpetrators, with one study finding that they are “at least 14 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to be arrested for one.”

The reality is there are numerous factors that can contribute to violent behavior in any person, schizophrenic or not, including substance abuse, childhood trauma, and a lack of support networks. In fact, one of the major risk factors for aggressive behavior in people with serious mental illness in general is a lack of proper treatment, with one study concluding that “community violence” is “inversely related to treatment adherence, perceived treatment need and perceived treatment effectiveness.” This supports the necessity of people with schizophrenia not only receiving treatment, but wanting it and feeling that it truly is helping them.

The Schizophrenic Lifestyle

Another damaging stereotype is that of the schizophrenic as the raving lunatic living on the streets. We’ve seen it time and again in movies like The Fisher King, where Robin Williams plays an eccentric homeless man suffering from symptoms mirroring those seen in schizophrenia. Despite this all-too-familiar image, there are many people with schizophrenia who live functional lives, hold down jobs, and have successful relationships.

Elyn Saks, a law professor at the University of Southern California, is a perfect example of someone with schizophrenia who maintains a stable life, explaining how work is one of the things that has grounded her, giving her the stability and structure needed to contain her symptoms and organize her thoughts.

“Even when I am feeling symptoms, when I am working they usually recede—they become sideline rather than front-and-center. Work focuses my mind and provides a sense of self-esteem.”

She graduated from Yale Law School; she has a husband; she has continued to work while managing her illness. We need to promote the idea that believing in your own potential to live with your challenge and manage it can help people living with it receive treatment and lead happy, fulfilling lives.

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Healing Through Open Communication

Schizophrenia can make people feel like their connection to those around them is severed, like they know or feel something that nobody else can grasp. They’ve battled with voices that distracted or put them down, and felt ostracized by the stigma in our media that seems to be making it harder, not easier, to get treatment.

Just by talking (and listening) to your loved one about their illness, however, you can help them open up to you and to others about their challenges and how to overcome them. You may hesitate to broach the topic—especially given the misconceptions you may carry about their illness—but remember, such misunderstandings are merely products of the misinformation you’ve been exposed to over the years, and can be remedied with a little open communication. It is also through such communication that you can help put your friend or family member on the road to recovery by encouraging them to seek and find the treatment that’s right for them.

Treatment programs that integrate one-on-one therapy and family support have been shown to be more effective than those that rely mostly on medication, emphasizing the necessity of opening up dialogue about schizophrenia and allowing people living with it to honestly express what they’re feeling and going through. This will allow your friend or family member to connect and build more meaningful relationships—and better equip you to lend them the empathy and support they need to get better.

Through the compassionate care offered by residential treatment programs, people living with schizophrenia can focus on their recovery in an environment that fosters understanding and acceptance of what they’re feeling, rather than suppressing or denying it. Our cultural perceptions paint a portrait of schizophrenia that’s riddled with flaws, but by participating in open, compassionate discussion with our loved ones living with schizophrenia, we can help remind them (and others like them) that such skewed perceptions are inaccurate and do not define them. They’re living with a mental health challenge that can be treated, and it is through your support that they can find the treatment and learn the coping skills they need to manage their symptoms and maintain a stable, healthy lifestyle.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people living with schizophrenia. Contact us if you want to receive treatment in an environment that operates outside of false cultural perceptions and promotes the openness and acceptance necessary for recovery.

Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Alexandru Zdrobău