-Sarah Syed Iftikhar

‘Schizophrenia’ – a word usually misinterpreted for violence and infuriation. A word that makes the majority of people feel uneasy and anxious. It is not surprising that anyone suffering from it would be under the impression that they are perceived to be fierce or berserk – when they clearly are not.

Schizophrenia is a common chronic brain disorder that affects the way an individual behaves, thinks and sees the world.  It is a challenging position to be in as it is very difficult to distinguish between reality and imagination, think clearly or even function normally. People affected may see or hear things that do not exist, believe they are constantly being stalked and feel as if everyone out there is  trying to hurt them. It is excruciating for them to engage in daily activities and so they usually draw away from the outside world.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia. The first and most popular one is that schizophrenia refers to someone having a ‘split personality’ or multiple personalities. It is thought that someone with schizophrenia swings from being calm to being out of control, as if they are perfectly normal one minute and acting completely bizarre the next. This is not true. Multiple personality disorder is completely different and a less common disorder compared to schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia are “split off” from reality. They are unable to tell whether something happening is real or not.

Moreover, it is believed that schizophrenia causes people to be violent. Again, this is completely false; people with this condition are rarely dangerous. Most people diagnosed with schizophrenia do not commit violent crimes. They are more likely to be a danger to themselves than to other people. Unfortunately, some people with this illness tend to get violent because of delusional beliefs and abuse of drugs or alcohol – which is the same for people who do not have schizophrenia. But such incidents are reported by the media in a way that emphasises the mental health aspects. This can create a fear in people and make it seem as if people suffering from schizophrenia are mentally unstable and vicious.

Many wonder what exactly are the root causes of this disorder. It is generally agreed that schizophrenia is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. One of the major causes is considered to be drug abuse. Excessive use of street drugs like cannabis and dopamine can bring on schizophrenia and make it worse. Also, highly stressful and life-changing events may trigger schizophrenia. These could possibly include social isolation, being out of work, living in poverty or being homeless, family problems, a difficult childhood, bereavement of someone you love or being physically and verbally abused or harassed. It can also be inherited, as it is proven than 1 in 10 patients suffering from this disorder have a parent with the illness.

The symptoms of schizophrenia are usually classified into one of two categories – positive and negative.  “Positive symptoms” include unusual experiences, people have them from time to time and they need not be a problem. In schizophrenia, they tend to be much more intense, troublesome, pre-occupying and distressing. The most common is hallucinations. This is when someone can feel, smell, hear or see something that does not exist. The most frequent one is hearing voices. These voices seem to be coming from outside them and they sound utterly real, although other people cannot hear them. They are often rude, abusive and critical.

Also, people suffering from this illness usually seem to be under a delusion. They see things in a completely different way from everyone else. They themselves have no doubts, but other people see their beliefs as unrealistic or strange. If they try to talk about their ideas, their reasons do not make sense or they are usually unable to explain it. “Paranoid delusions” are common delusions. These are ideas that make you feel persecuted or harassed. They may be unusual, as if someone is influencing them with special powers. They start to see special meanings in ordinary, day-to-day events. It feels as though things are specially connected to them – that radio or TV programmes are all about them, or that someone is telling them things in odd ways, for example, through the colours of cars passing in the street.

Then, there are the “negative” symptoms that refer to the absence of normal behaviour found in healthy individuals. This includes losing motivation and interest in life. It is nearly impossible for them to feel excited or enthusiastic about anything. It is hard to concentrate and their thoughts wander a lot. They drift from idea to idea, but there to seem to be no clear connection between them. After a minute or two they cannot remember what they were originally trying to think about. Some people describe their thoughts as being ‘misty’ or ‘hazy’ when this is happening. People with schizophrenia feel lonely and depressed, as if no one is able to understand what they are going through.

But that does not mean there is no hope for such people. Schizophrenia is an illness that can be successfully managed if it is diagnosed and treated at the right time. Doctors usually prescribe antipsychotic drugs to control the ‘positive’ symptoms of schizophrenia. Family therapies, art therapies, counselling and supportive psychotherapy may be useful as they may help one to express and understand them self in a therapeutic environment with a trained therapist. The last and most widely used therapy is the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This can be done by clinical psychologists, psychiatrists or nurse therapists and may help to concentrate on the problems that you find most difficult. These could be thoughts, hallucinations or feelings that you are being persecuted. It also eases stress so the symptoms do not get worse and suggests ways of managing the side effects of medication, such as weight gain. It helps manage things like social anxiety and depression which are often associated with schizophrenia.

Sarah Syed Iftikhar

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