When it comes to raising awareness of an issue it is often said that no publicity is bad publicity. The consistently negative media portrayals of people living with schizophrenia certainly bring that theory into question.
Of course some people with mental health problems commit violent crimes, as do people without mental health problems. When someone is a danger to themselves or others it is critical that they receive appropriate and timely support. But there is a need to put this into perspective and to recognise the repercussions of negative portrayals of people with mental health problems - most notably schizophrenia.
People living with schizophrenia are often portrayed as violent and dangerous, their stories sensationalised. A 2012 study found that over 80% of main characters with schizophrenia in films displayed violent behaviour and nearly a third engaged in homicidal behaviour. The independent 'Inquiry into the "schizophrenia" label' in 2012 also found that 88% of people living with the diagnosis said they thought the public associated 'schizophrenia' with violence.
There are approximately 220,000 people living with schizophrenia in the UK today and most are never violent, do not commit violent crimes and do not display dangerous behaviour. The impact of stigma and discrimination on people living with schizophrenia cannot be underestimated, research has shown that people with mental health problems are pre-judged and find it hard to sustain friendships and relationships; something we now know is crucial to our health and wellbeing.
After looking at the global body of evidence, the Mental Health Foundation found striking evidence on the impact of relationships on our health and wellbeing - comparable to well established risk factors such as smoking. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected. That's why they chose Relationships as this year's Mental Health Awareness Week theme.
Living with schizophrenia can often be very frightening and can be enough of a barrier in itself to sustaining relationships without the added stigma and discrimination. None of us are immune to mental ill health and we have a human duty to show solidarity, open-mindedness and compassion for those who are living with mental health problems. People with a diagnosis of schizophrenia die on average 20 years younger than the general population, and around one in ten take their own lives - something you're not so likely to see represented in the media.
Over the past decade, research carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College London has shown that personal contact with people with mental health problems is the most effective way to reduce discrimination and prejudice.
I spoke to Dr David Crepaz-Keay, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager:
"I've been living with my diagnosis of schizophrenia for over 35 years now. It wasn't my first diagnosis but it was the one that stuck. When I first got it, I thought my life was over."
"One of the things that struck me most was the low expectations that followed. This was particularly apparent among healthcare professionals; all they saw was a label - the person I used to be, or might become, vanished. If enough people, particularly professionals, treat you like a lost cause, then sooner or later you end up believing it. I was fortunate that people who really understood my experience still expected me to achieve things. One in particular persuaded me to get involved in a local support organisation, expecting me to get on and do things for myself and others rather than becoming a passive patient."
"Fortunately I had friends who believed in the old me. I also developed new friendships with people, many of whom had shared my experiences of psychiatric care. Spending time with people who shared my experience, but had survived and thrived in spite of it, was an inspiration and many of these people remain good friends to this day. Not all my friends were able to cope with me and sometimes I felt very lonely and isolated, but there were times when it was only my friends that kept me going."
"The people I care about, the people who matter, don't see a diagnosis, they see a person. This is a right we should afford all people living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia."
For more information on supporting someone who has experienced psychosis and information on the impact of discrimination and stigma visit mentalhealthcare.org.uk
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