Debunking the top myths about schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness often misunderstood. Stereotypical portrayals in movies and TV perpetuate false narratives, leading to inaccurate conclusions. Here are five common myths about schizophrenia and the truth behind them.

Myth: People living in poverty are more likely to get schizophrenia.

We tend to pair schizophrenia with assumptions of low income or poverty, but that’s not accurate. Sometimes, due to their illness and its effects, patients with schizophrenia may have to receive disability support or struggle to sustain consistent work or independent housing. So, it may appear that the illness disproportionately affects socioeconomically disadvantaged people, but socioeconomic challenges do not cause schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is associated with both genetic and environmental factors and can affect people regardless of class; however, it is important to note that access to resources may enhance early and consistent treatment and support services.

Myth: Schizophrenia affects all populations equally.

There are genetic and environmental causes that are contributing factors to schizophrenia. For example, it is possible that exposure to traumatic events early in life could be associated with a later diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, overall, the general population can be equally affected. The incidence rate for males and females is relatively equal; it might be a bit higher for males.

While schizophrenia occurs relatively equally across all populations, some populations are more likely to be over- or underdiagnosed. For example, in the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) community, Black Americans are 2.4 times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia and have the highest lifetime rate of disorders that include psychotic symptoms (15.3 percent).

On the other hand, some cultures – like the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, may experience underdiagnosis. Members of this community can be more reticent to seek treatment for mental illness due to cultural beliefs, including stigma around mental health and feelings of shame about the nature of these illnesses. Some cultures believe having hallucinations brings one closer to God – so those individuals may be less likely to report symptoms that may lead to a diagnosis.

Myth: Schizophrenia can be caused by a bad upbringing, particularly bad mothering.

This idea that schizophrenia is caused by bad mothering is an old and completely untrue one. We don’t know what causes schizophrenia. There are a multitude of potential contributing factors, including environmental influences and genetic factors, such as brain structure. Sometimes, the onset of schizophrenia may have something to do with traumatic events that happen early in life. Trauma during birth, lack of nutrition, or an infection during gestation have all been suggested as being possibly related, but the causation is not completely clear. What’s important to understand is that conditions like schizophrenia are likely the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors; there isn’t a one-to-one correlation. We need to debunk the myth that it is anyone’s fault.

Myth: People with schizophrenia can never recover or live independently.

This is false. With the right treatment and support, people living with schizophrenia can live productive, independent, and meaningful lives. With early and accurate diagnosis and the right treatment and support, we can address the patient’s initial onset of symptoms, get them on a consistent regimen, and minimize potential long-term decline in functioning. By preserving functioning, patients can continue to live the life they want.

Myth: Schizophrenia is an untreatable condition.

While schizophrenia is a lifelong medical condition with no cure, it is absolutely treatable. New treatments become available every year based on what we know does and doesn’t work, and research is ongoing in the search for effective and safe medications. The good news is that many different treatment options are available, including oral medications and long-acting injectables (LAIs). As mental health professionals, our goal is to work with our patients to find a treatment regimen that works well for them and in the least structured environment possible, enabling them to live a life where they can work, have relationships, grocery shop, and drive on a day-to-day basis. LAIs – such as ARISTADA – are given by injection and can help lessen the chance of a missed dose that can happen with oral medications. They also help ensure that a patient has medication in their system for the full dosing period. LAIs are available in a variety of doses that can last several weeks or several months, meaning a patient has to worry about fewer doses throughout the year.

Television shows like Grey’s Anatomy can do an excellent job of portraying what treated schizophrenia can look like. Dr. Alex Karev’s mother was shown having episodes of schizophrenia at points throughout the show, with symptoms reappearing when she forgot to take her medication. By season 14, Helen Karev managed her symptoms by taking her medication as prescribed and staying consistent with her psychosocial support. By the end of season 15, she traveled cross-country by bus, spotlighting that living a fulfilling life with proper treatment is possible.

It’s clear that schizophrenia is a complex, serious mental illness and one that is still largely misunderstood, but it is treatable. Through continued education, open dialogue, and efforts to break down the stigma that continues to shroud this disease, we have an opportunity to educate people about schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses. Ultimately, if we can better understand the disease, we can take steps towards mitigating misperceptions. Collectively, the goal should be to help people better understand the disease and be able to recognize symptoms, which can promote earlier diagnosis and a faster path toward finding treatment that works.

Brooke Kempf is a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.


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