Schizophrenia myths and facts

Studies show disorders like schizophrenia often result in substance abuse problems, and that can lead to violence. But the disorder alone doesn’t make you physically aggressive.

Myth: It comes on with a sudden psychotic break.

Fact: Some people have a big mental event that leads to a schizophrenia diagnosis. But symptoms can appear over time and are hard to notice. If you have early symptoms of schizophrenia, you might:

  • Be less social
  • Show less interest in normal activities
  • Withdraw from everyday life

Other symptoms, like acting out delusions and hallucinating, can show up later.

Myth: You have to live in a mental hospital.

Fact: The level of care you need depends on how severe your symptoms are. Many people with schizophrenia are able to live and work just like everyone else. It’s important to be in close contact with your doctor, and to have support in place to help you continue your treatment as needed.

Myth: It gets worse over time.

Fact: Schizophrenia can’t be cured. But if it’s caught early and you get the right treatment, you can manage your symptoms. Antipsychotic medications help stabilize you, and lower the risk of future symptoms. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are also helpful tools to help you handle stress better and live well.

4 Myths About Schizophrenia (and the Facts You Need to Know)

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Roughly 1.1 percent of adults in the United States live with schizophrenia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). To put this into perspective, of the 52,964 people who visit Disney World every day, approximately 582 have schizophrenia. To get to Disney World, these 582 people would fill more than 11 Greyhound buses or 1.4 jumbo jets.

Of course, those 582 individuals represent only a small portion of the 2 million people with the disorder in the entire country. The total number of Americans with schizophrenia could replace every resident in Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and then some.

Do you know someone living in one of these cities? Then you’re just as likely to know someone with schizophrenia.

Myths and Facts

Contrary to their portrayal in some media, individuals with schizophrenia are able to live relatively normal lives. For many people, this fact can be surprising. Aren’t people with schizophrenia, they might ask, supposed to be locked up inside a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest type of institution? Isn’t schizophrenia supposed to be a life-ending diagnosis?

As it turns out, myths—and not the facts—heavily influence how many people view schizophrenia. Here are only a few of the commonly believed myths, and why they’re wrong:

1. People with schizophrenia have multiple personalities.

According to a 2008 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64 percent of the population is unable to recognize the symptoms associated with schizophrenia and instead simply believe that people with the disorder have “split” or multiple personalities.

This is false. Schizophrenia often involves a variety of symptoms, but not one involves multiple personalities. This myth likely originated because the word “schizo” means split—however, in this case, it refers to gaps (or a splitting) in a person’s ability to think and express emotions. (People with split personalities are living with Dissociative Identity Disorder.)

2. Schizophrenia makes people dangerous.

In popular culture, individuals with schizophrenia are often depicted as sadistic, unpredictable, and violent. Although it’s true that some individuals with schizophrenia do commit crimes, the vast majority of patients are nonviolent. In fact, of past violent offenders who did have schizophrenia, only 23 percent of their crimes were directly related to their symptoms.

Unfortunately, the notion that all individuals with schizophrenia are dangerous contributes heavily to the stigma surrounding the disorder. People with schizophrenia often have reduced housing and employment opportunities, greater stress, lower self-esteem, and diminished quality of life.

3. Schizophrenia only involves delusions and hallucinations.

Many people incorrectly believe that individuals with schizophrenia only suffer from hallucinations and delusions. This is not surprising: Psychotic symptoms are unusual and often frightening, and so popular culture focuses on these more than other symptoms associated with schizophrenia.

Along with delusions and hallucinations, though, individuals with schizophrenia may experience blunted emotions, low motivation, disorganized speech, and a lack of desire to form social relationships. They also can have difficulty maintaining attention and performing certain cognitive tasks.

4. Schizophrenia can’t be treated.

In old movies—and in old times in general—people with schizophrenia often were carted off to institutions, often to live the rest of their lives in isolation. In many ways, developing a severe mental disorder was the same as receiving a life sentence in prison. For this reason, many people erroneously believe that schizophrenia can’t be treated and that institutionalization is the only solution.

Although it’s true that schizophrenia cannot be cured, it can be successfully treated. Medication, rehabilitation practices and psychosocial therapies can help individuals with schizophrenia lead independent and productive lives. In fact, with proper treatment, many people with schizophrenia appear to be completely healthy.

Source: Sovereign Health/

Much More to Learn

Researchers are still trying to learn everything they can about the disorder: Is schizophrenia linked to specific anatomical structures in the brain? Can a computer predict the risk of psychosis? Are microbiomes within the human throat partially to blame for the development of the disorder? Every day, more answers are uncovered as more questions arise. Hopefully, in the future, all of the present facts about schizophrenia will turn into myths as well.

Contributed by Courtney Lopresti, M.S.

Inaccurate stereotypes and erroneous beliefs abound concerning schizophrenia. Stanford psychiatrist Jacob Ballon, MD, dispelled a few of these myths in a recent article in Everyday Health. Here are a few takeaways and a bit of basic info regarding the disease:

  • There is an underlying, complex genetic component to schizophrenia that is not understood well enough to provide a diagnosis or guide treatment.
  • Schizophrenics do not have multiple personalities — that is called dissociative identity disorder.
  • Most cases of schizophrenia develop between adolescence and age 30; children rarely develop schizophrenia.
  • People with schizophrenia as a group are not more prone to violent behavior. Although there is an association between violence and schizophrenia, the additional risk is largely due to substance abuse.
  • People with schizophrenia have a significantly higher risk of suicide and depression.
  • People with schizophrenia can have delusions and hallucinations. A delusion is a belief and a hallucination is a sensory experience, like a vision. Delusions can include persecutory delusions of feeling watched or followed, thoughts of feeling contaminated or delusions of grandeur. If you are with someone with schizophrenia, keep in mind that the delusion or hallucination is very real to them.
  • Movement can be affected and people with schizophrenia may have difficulty speaking or struggle to pay attention or remember things. Their decision-making may also be compromised.
  • Although there is no cure for schizophrenia, there are effective treatments, including psychotherapy and medications.
  • Starting treatment soon after the disease develops is thought to be the most beneficial.

“There are a number of people who are treated for schizophrenia and are doing quite well,” said Ballon in the article. He added, “If people are able to participate in psychotherapy, they can better extend the value of the medication and also apply some helpful principles to actual experiences in their life. I want people to get help and support with school and employment because I believe they’ll be able to get back on an upward trajectory much more quickly if they get help at an early stage.”

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There’s a lot of incorrect info out there about schizophrenia. Some of it is spread by movies or TV shows. Or sometimes people use stereotypes when talking about this mental illness.

Get the real story behind some common myths.

Myth No. 1: It means you have multiple personalities.

This is one of the biggest misunderstandings about schizophrenia. One poll found that 64% of Americans believe the condition involves a split personality, which means someone acts like they’re two separate people.

A person with schizophrenia doesn’t have two different personalities. Instead, he has false ideas or has lost touch with reality. Multiple personality disorder is unrelated.

Myth No. 2: Most people with schizophrenia are violent or dangerous.

In movies and TV shows, who is the crazed killer? Often it’s the character with this condition. That’s not the case in real life.

Even though people with schizophrenia can act unpredictably at times, most aren’t violent, especially if they’re getting treated.

When people with this brain disorder do commit violent acts, they usually have another condition, like childhood conduct problems or substance abuse.

Myth No. 3: Bad parenting is the cause.

Mothers, in particular, often get blamed.

But schizophrenia is a mental illness. It has many causes, including genes, trauma, and drug abuse. Mistakes you’ve made as a parent won’t give your child this condition.

Myth No. 4: If your parent has schizophrenia, you’ll get it too.

Genes do play a role. But just because one of your parents has this mental illness doesn’t mean you’re destined to get it.

If one parent has schizophrenia, your risk of getting the condition is about 10%. Having more than one family member with it raises your risk.

Myth No. 5: People with schizophrenia aren’t smart.

Some studies have that found that people with the condition have more trouble on tests of mental skills such as attention, learning, and memory. But that doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.

Many creative and smart people throughout history have had schizophrenia, such as Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. Scientists are even looking into links between genes that may be related to both psychosis and creativity.

Schizophrenia: Popular Myths, Real Facts

2. Myth: People With Schizophrenia Have Multiple Personalities

This myth certainly is persistent, but it’s hard to say where it started, says Ballon. “One of the best explanations I’ve heard comes from breaking down the word schizophrenia. Etymologically it comes from ‘schizo’ meaning split and ‘phrenia’ meaning mind,” he says. Putting those two meanings together might lead people to draw the wrong conclusion and think someone with schizophrenia has two or more personalities.

“When a person displays multiple personalities, it’s called dissociative identity disorder (DID). It’s a different disorder and has different risk factors,” says Ballon, adding that DID is more closely related to the experience of trauma.

3. Fact: Marijuana Use Is Associated With an Increased Risk of Schizophrenia

“The association between the two is concerning. Let’s first look at the increased risk for psychosis associated with marijuana use, and the resulting increased risk for schizophrenia,” says Ballon. An Australian study published in Archives of General Psychiatry showed that regular cannabis users double their risk of developing psychosis from .07 percent to .14 percent.

“We know epidemiologically, as more potent strains of marijuana enter a community, so too does the rate of psychosis increase,” says Ballon, referencing work by Robin Murray and colleagues published in World Psychiatry in September 2016.

Marijuana Is More Potent and More Available Than in the Past

“Take the state of California, where marijuana use is now legal. Marijuana is more potent, people use it more often, and they use it more deeply,” says Ballon. All the things that we learned about marijuana a generation ago are probably not accurate anymore because the marijuana is so much stronger and used so much more frequently by the average user, he says.

In the next several years, we may see an unintended consequence of legalization in certain parts of the U.S. — a rise in the number of people with certain mental health conditions. “Time will have to tell, but I would be worried about it,” says Ballon.

RELATED: Can Marijuana Cause Schizophrenia?

4. Myth: People With Schizophrenia Are Prone to Violence

“People with schizophrenia as a group are not more prone to violent behavior,” says Ballon. “If you look at some of the most significant crimes that have happened, it may seem that a disproportionate amount of those crimes were committed by people with mental health problems, maybe even people with schizophrenia chief among them, says Ballon. “But if you look at people with schizophrenia, are they more likely to be violent than the average person, especially if they’re not in the midst of a crisis, then the answer would be no, they’re not,” he says.

Research published in PLoS Medicine found an association with violence and schizophrenia and other psychoses, but most of the excess risk was due to substance abuse in those people. The authors concluded that the risk of violent behavior in people with psychosis and substance abuse was similar to that of the risk for people with substance abuse and no psychosis.

RELATED: Bipolar Disorder: Symptoms, Types, Causes, Treatment, and More

5. Fact: People With Schizophrenia Have a Higher Risk of Suicide

People with schizophrenia have a higher risk of suicide, says Ballon. It’s estimated that about 10 percent of people with the condition will die by suicide, and suicide attempts for people with the condition are even higher. Canadian research published in 2016 in Schizophrenia Research and Treatment found that the lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts among people with schizophrenia was 39.2 percent compared with 2.8 percent in the general population.

These attempts can be at any number of points at the course of the illness, says Ballon. “It can be when a person may be having symptoms and hearing voices telling them to kill themselves. It could be shortly after a person is recovering from many symptoms — they may look at what happened in a different way and be worried about their future and more likely to want to harm themselves at that point,” says Ballon.

This can be especially true when people are taking on certain internalized stigmas about what they’re likely to achieve when they have a mental illness, says Ballon. “They feel like they’re not going to be able to have the life they were expecting; they may be at great risk at that point,” he says.

“There’s an overlap between schizophrenia and depression as it is, and that in and of itself may also increase the risk of people wanting to harm themselves,” he adds.

6. Fact: It Is Common for People With Schizophrenia to Have Delusions That Aren’t Based in Reality

“The simplest explanation of a delusion is a fixed false belief that a person can maintain despite evidence to the contrary, and there can be a number of different types,” says Ballon. “There are persecutory delusions, where a person feels watched or followed. They might feel like the government is after them or that they have special information that somebody else might need to obtain from them. That can make a person feel very worried or scared.”

Another type is somatic delusions, where a person might feel contaminated, says Ballon. “The person might feel like something is wrong with their internal organs or maybe they think they have an illness that there isn’t any reason to believe they have,” he says.

RELATED: What Is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

“There can be delusions of grandeur where a person feels like they have special abilities or power in certain things. They might believe that they’re the president of the United States or Jesus. Maybe they believe they control the weather,” says Ballon.

“The hard part is that you can’t really talk somebody out of a delusion, so it can be very challenging to work with,” says Ballon. It’s important to keep in mind that the delusions themselves may indicate that a person is playing with a different set of facts about what’s going on in the world than most of us and their behavior may reflect that, he says. “Sometimes it’s helpful to step back and realize that although someone’s behavior may seem not to make sense, it can make more sense in the context of what may be some delusional thinking,” says Ballon. That can be a step toward empathizing and understanding, he says.

7. Myth: There Isn’t an Effective Way to Treat Schizophrenia

“There are a number of people who are treated for schizophrenia and are doing quite well,” says Ballon. He has treated people who work for large technology companies and other successful businesses, people who have graduated from college, and some who are getting married.

He cites Elyn Saks, PhD, a MacArthur Fellowship grant recipient and the associate dean at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, as an exceptional example of someone thriving with schizophrenia. Dr. Saks has written a book and given a TED Talk about her life with schizophrenia.

“Are these kinds of examples what every person with schizophrenia is going to experience? No,” says Ballon. “There’s going to be some definite variety there,” he says.

Along with the examples of people who are managing their condition well, there will be those who might more closely resemble the picture that many people have when they think of the condition — people on the street talking to themselves, he says.

Ballon says he tries to include the patient and the family in the decision-making process when it comes to treatment. “I want to make sure that we’re addressing more than just the psychotic symptoms for somebody, which means doing things beyond the medicine they take,” he says.

If people are able to participate in psychotherapy they can better extend the value of the medication and also apply some helpful principles to actual experiences in their life, says Ballon. “I want people to get help and support with school and employment because I believe they’ll be able to get back on an upward trajectory much more quickly if they get help at an early stage,” says Ballon.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a diagnosis given to people who experience symptoms of psychosis, alongside what are called ‘negative symptoms’.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a diagnosis given to people who experience symptoms of psychosis, alongside what are called ‘negative symptoms’:

  • Psychosis can include hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and confused thoughts and feelings.
  • Negative symptoms include withdrawal from family and friends and an extreme lack of interest and motivation generally.

Only a psychiatrist can diagnose schizophrenia. They will make a diagnosis by asking questions about a person’s thoughts and feelings.

There is a lot of disagreement over whether the diagnosis of schizophrenia should still be used and whether focusing on the individual symptoms would be more helpful. However, it is important to remember that a diagnosis is not a label. It is a tool to help professionals decide what types of treatment and support may help. Diagnoses may also change over the course of someone’s lifetime.

How common is schizophrenia?

It is difficult to know how common schizophrenia is, as many people describe the symptoms in different ways and some may never receive a formal diagnosis. However, it is estimated around 1% of the population will experience the symptoms of schizophrenia, or something similar, within their lifetime.

What are some of the myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia?

Unhelpful and inaccurate beliefs about what it means to have schizophrenia can make people ashamed or afraid to speak about their experiences. This stops them getting the help they need and could lead to the loss of friends, family relationships, jobs, homes and even lives.

There’s so much that’s happened to you, that will keep happening, that you don’t talk about, just so you can be “normal” – Ash

People with schizophrenia are dangerous

News, TV and films often portray people with schizophrenia as dangerous. This is partly because mental health problems are used as a way of explaining things people can’t make sense of. However, the fact is that people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence rather than the one carrying it out.

On the rare occasions when someone with a mental health problem has committed an act of violence, it is nearly always because the right care and support has not been available to them.

It is my opinion that the ignorance, discrimination and stigma we were victims of will continue to destroy families and individuals unless public attitudes change – Peter

It means to have a ‘split personality’

The word schizophrenia means to have ‘two minds’ which over the years has made people think, that to have schizophrenia, means to have multiple personalities. This is not the case. Someone’s feelings, thoughts and behaviour may change depending on how well they are but they do not change in personality.

Someone with schizophrenia can’t live a normal life

In the early-mid 20th century people with diagnoses like schizophrenia were often kept in residential hospitals called ‘asylums’ because people thought they would never get better and they were better off separated from society, including their families and friends. This has been disproven and is no longer an acceptable way to treat anyone with a mental health problem. Someone with schizophrenia can live a normal, healthy, fulfilled life amongst their family and friends if they are offered the treatment and support they need.

I have faced discrimination because of my illness too. But it’s a myth that people who have schizophrenia can’t do great things and achieve their dreams. Especially with the love and support of others – Andrea

After being named and shamed with schizophrenia, my mother threw me out of the house; it was in the days of the old institution. Patients had been in hospital for 50 years – Karim

How does schizophrenia affect people’s lives?

People with schizophrenia have to manage the symptoms of psychosis, as well as negative symptoms, at various points during their lives. Dealing with beliefs or experiences that others don’t believe or understand, can be very frightening, isolating and frustrating. The beliefs and experiences themselves can also be very worrying.

The social withdrawal and extreme lack of motivation that people with schizophrenia can experience can lead to them becoming very isolated and alone. They may also lose any motivation to look after their physical health and hygiene and become disinterested in work or hobbies. This can all lead to difficulties maintaining relationships, staying in employment and looking after their physical health.

I was in such a state I could barely leave the house and was waking my family several times a night to check that they had not, as my delusions were telling me, been murdered by an intruder as they slept – Alice

This point in time was, looking back, perhaps the low point of my life. I had almost given up on friendship altogether. I’d hardly seen my friends since becoming unwell – Ed

How can I help someone with schizophrenia?

Learn about schizophrenia

There are lots of resources online which you can use to find out about schizophrenia. These may help you to understand what your friend or family member is going through and help you to feel more confident in offering support. Try starting with the Mind or Rethink Mental Illness websites.

Please, please, do not bury your head in the sand, if you have a family member with mental illness. Make the effort to talk about it – Heli

Don’t argue with them

If someone with schizophrenia is experiencing psychosis you may think it helpful to try and correct or challenge the strange beliefs or experiences they are going through. But it is important to remember that these things are very real to them and disagreeing with them may cause them to stop communicating with you all together or make them feel more scared and alone.

It is more helpful to focus on how they are feeling rather than their specific experiences. Try explaining that while you do not share the same experiences of beliefs, you do understand how they are making them feel, and that you would like to help.

An overall feeling of schizophrenia is that I felt very sequestered from the outside/real world; it’s like being locked away from people and society – Matthew

Ask them how you can help

Everybody is different and there is no one way to help someone experiencing schizophrenia. If you want to support a friend or loved one, one of the best things to do is ask them how.

I had not had friends over for years, so when my friend asked if he could pop round, I was delighted… I always look back at this as the time when my recovery started, when I thought I wanted more for myself – Ed

Give them information about other types of support

Sometimes the support of friends and family is not enough. Letting them know about the support they can get from the NHS, private healthcare or organisations like Mind and Rethink Mental Illness can also be helpful.

As well as treatment provided by medical professionals, such as psychological therapies and medication, community based support related to lifestyle, education or social activities can also help someone stay well.

Remember you can’t force someone to get help. Repeatedly trying to do so before they are ready can actually do more harm than good.

If someone is in the middle of a period of psychosis they might not be aware that they are unwell, and so may not see why they need medical help. This can be really difficult to deal with, but there are ways of getting someone help without their agreement if they are at serious risk or danger to themselves or others.

If someone is at serious risk or danger to themselves or others, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness have information on what to do in an emergency.

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