World Mental Health Day 2014: Tackling The Stigma Surrounding Schizophrenia

09/10/2014 13:52 | Updated 09 October 2014
  • Rachel Moss Lifestyle Writer at The Huffington Post UK

Do you believe schizophrenia is about people with multiple personalities?

If the answer is yes, you may be in a broad majority, but that doesn't mean it's true, which is why events such as World Mental Health Day are critical to assert the facts and dispel myths.

"Schizophrenia is not a 'split personality', says Dr Sheri Jacobson, clinical director at Harley Therapy.

"People with schizophrenia don't act normal and then suddenly turn into someone else, like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde act. A schizophrenic has one personality, it's their perception of their world that splits."

It's thought that around 26 million people across the world will experience schizophrenia in their lifetime. It's also estimated that one in 100 people in the UK are living with the mental illness.

Despite these high figures, many people living with the condition will not receive a formal diagnosis.

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Misinformation in the media about the illness has led to a lack of understanding around it, meaning many suffering do not seek the support they need.

"It is perhaps more important to look at what schizophrenia isn't, than what schizophrenia is, as films and media often portray it in ways that aren't helpful views of the condition,"

Schizophrenia affects the way people think and perceive the world around them. Symptoms can include hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t real, depression or becoming withdrawn.

A schizophrenic may also experience delusions, which may start based in truth, but become more complex as the illness progresses.

Nigel Campbell, associate director of communications at Rethink Mental Illness, says: "As you can imagine, it can be very frightening for people when they first start to experience symptoms like hearing voices, or extreme paranoia.

"It can also be hard for people to differentiate between what they’re going through, and reality.

"This can also be very difficult and confusing for their families and friends, who might not understand what is happening to their loved one, or where to turn for support."

Campbell says one of the biggest problems that people with schizophrenia face is the stigma around the illness - some sufferers still lose relationships with family and friends after opening up to them about what they're experiencing, while others will struggle to find employment.

"Many employers assume that if you have a mental health problem, you won’t be able to hold down a job. It is a disgrace that only around 8% of people with schizophrenia in this country are in employment," Campbell adds.

Shockingly, people with schizophrenia or other severe mental illnesses die on average 20 years earlier than the general population, mostly from preventable illnesses.

According to Rethink's 20+ campaign, this is because people with serious mental illness do not get regular physical health checks, and signs of physical health problems are often missed when they seek help.

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Clearly we still have a long way to go before schizophrenia is universally understood, but attitudes towards mental health do at least seem to be slowly changing.

A recent survey from Time to Change (a mental health anti-stigma programme), found 79% of people now acknowledge that those with a mental illness have for too long been the subject of ridicule.

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, says: “In recent years we’ve seen thousands of people starting to speak out, challenging big high street brands that have fuelled stigma and sharing their own experiences to help shift perceptions, including MPs, high profile sportspeople and people in business.

"However, we shouldn’t underestimate the task ahead of securing long lasting, irreversible and far-reaching changes in attitudes, behaviour, policies and systems.

"We will have reached our goal when someone can openly share their diagnosis of depression, schizophrenia or bipolar on a first date or at a job interview without fear of a negative reaction.”

There isn't one specific cure for schizophrenia, a combination of medication and talking therapy are often prescribed. If you believe you, or a loved one, may be experiencing symptoms, the first step should be to visit a GP.

Dr Fiona Morrison, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Glasgow, says well-controlled symptoms can allow a person to function fully in the community, and work.

"Psychiatry and psychology assessments can help with diagnosis and early management. The Hearing Voices Network can be very good for those who wish to use other ways [than medication] to take back control of voices," she adds.

As well as being frightening for the person experiencing symptoms, schizophrenia can also be challenging for that individual's friends and family.

Dr Jacobson warns that if you're helping someone with schizophrenia, it's advisable to get some help for yourself as well.

"Don't blame yourself if things become more challenging than you can handle if a loved one suffers from schizophrenia, and don't blame yourself that your loved one has the condition – it is nobody's fault.

"Schizophrenia is a challenge for all those involved, and the feelings of fear, frustration and helplessness it can cause can lead to stress and anxiety that can take over your life is you let it," she says.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about schizophrenia is that is is not a life sentence.

"With the right support people can recover, " Campbell says. "About half of all people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia recover after one or two episodes. The key is to get treatment as quickly as possible."

World Mental Health Day is on 10th October 2014. Rethink's Schizophrenia Awareness Week runs from the 6th – 10th October. Visit www.rethink.org or www.mentalhealth.org.uk for more information and advice.

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