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The truth about schizophrenia...
Schizophrenia is a much misunderstood condition. It refers to an illness where a person has difficulty in distinguishing what is real and what is imaginary, making them behave bizarrely. The most popular misconception about schizophrenia is that it describes a person suffering from multiple personalities, who may be violent. While such a condition may make for a good Hollywood movie, in reality it is extremely rare. Schizophrenia is another thing entirely.
The recent 'comedy' film 'Me, myself and Irene' that depicted a 'Jekyll and Hyde' character with schizophrenia was typical of the stereotyping that surrounds this common mental illness. A more accurate portrayal of the condition is seen in the film, 'A beautiful mind'.
Stereotypes in cinema
Among the most enduring images of mental illness are from films such as 'Psycho', 'Hallowee'n' and the 'Friday the 13th' series but these do not depict people with schizophrenia. With the illness there is no split between good and evil, no satanic possession.
The confusion arises from the very term itself - 'schizophrenia' - it comes from two Greek words which translate as 'split mind'. In fact, schizophrenia is less of a coherent condition but rather a term used to describe a range of disorders, none of which relate to having multiple personalities.
Because of a number of high profile cases which have involved people with schizophrenia in violent activity, the general public also misconceive the illness as involving a dangerously psychotic condition. John Saunders, the Director of the Lucia Foundation, Ireland's national schizophrenia organisation, is highly critical of the misunderstandings that surround the public perception of the illness.
"If you look at the tabloid press, you can still see the 'psycho schizo murderer' headlines. However, the broadsheet press are more sensitive and responsible in their reporting", he says. "It is a big misconception that people with schizophrenia are violent. They are no more violent that the rest of the population". People with schizophrenia may hear persecutory voices which makes them much more vulnerable because of their increased risk of suicide, he added.
It is conservatively estimated that people with schizophrenia are ten times more likely than the general population to take their own lives as a result of wishing to escape from their own private hell. Since between 1% and 1.5% of people in Western societies may suffer from schizophrenia, that means a lot of lives are at risk.
A graph which illustrates that schizophrenia is more common than many other serious conditions.
The symptoms of schizophrenia vary from person to person, but they tend to involve some difficulty in distinguishing reality and in managing their emotional responses. Some of those with the condition experience hallucinations, both auditory and occasionally visual, while others suffer from delusions, paranoia and anxiety. The common thread appears to be disordered thinking, which all of those with schizophrenia experience in some form.
Syd Barrett - the early driving force behind the famous rock band Pink Floyd, suffered from schizophrenia and had to give up music.
While schizophrenia can occur at any stage of life, it is extremely rare after the age of 40 and quite uncommon after the age of 30. Predominantly the illness affects younger people and 75% of sufferers will first experience the onset of schizophrenia between the ages of 16 and 25.
A difficult illness
Because schizophrenia tends to strike so early, many talented young people's futures have been cut short by this difficult illness. The debilitating nature of schizophrenia has cut off many talented artists and scientists just as their careers were getting underway. However, improvements in treatments have meant that many people with schizophrenia can not only expect to keep their symptoms under control, but also hope one day to be cured.
Vaslav Nijinsky - legendary dancer and composer who suffered from schizophrenia.
A case in point is Nobel prizewinner John F Nash who suffered from schizophrenia for decades. Described in 1958 as the most promising young mathematician in the world, it was only a few years later that he began to experience the paranoia, delusions and auditory hallucinations that are the hallmark of schizophrenia.
"The staff at my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later all of Boston were behaving strangely towards me", he explained. "I started to see crypto-communists everywhere. I started to think I was a man of great religious importance and to hear voices all the time. I began to hear something like telephone calls in my head, from people opposed to my ideas. The delirium was like a dream from which I seemed never to awake".
Nobel prize winner John F Nash, whose career in mathematics and economics was blighted for years by schizophrenia.
Though Nash was able to continue with his work in mathematics and economics, developing the famous 'game' theory which earned him the Nobel Prize for Economics, he was regularly admitted to hospital. After 15 years of schizophrenia symptoms he recovered from the condition in 1974. His story is told in the Oscar winning film, 'A beautiful mind'.
In Ireland, newly developed medications offer most people diagnosed with schizophrenia the chance to regain a normal life. The more modern drugs currently in use are reported to offer good control of symptoms with less of the sedation and side effects that older medications induce. It is essential for patients to remain on their medication throughout their lives however and if a patient does not comply they can expect their condition to return.
"Most people diagnosed with schizophrenia will have one or two acute bouts of the illness but will afterwards receive treatment and be well again", explains John Saunders. "One in four will have to be sporadically admitted to hospital throughout their lives, while another 25% will require total care".
Gaps in services
He believes that the quality of care received by patients in Ireland varies from region to region. While some health board areas offer substantial support from community services and access to 'talking cures' such as psychotherapy, others focus on a rigidly medical model. This means that a patient in one part of the country may receive guidance and counselling, while elsewhere a similar patient may languish in an institutional environment receiving only medication to deal with their symptoms.
"People with schizophrenia need support, redirection and training", he says. "The more education carers and patients have about the condition, the better the outlook. Some people need counselling, because stress, trauma and drug abuse are major triggers of the illness. We would like to see a national review of psychiatric services in this country because there is a major need to develop more community services for people with illnesses like schizophrenia".
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Last Reviewed: 4th October 2001