Psycho, loony, nutter, weirdo, waste of space, mongo, not the full shilling, a sandwich short of a picnic, windae licker. The litany of abusive terms for sufferers of mental illness speaks volumes about the stigma and ignorance that surrounds the topic. How many abusive terms can you think of for someone who is suffering from heart disease or diabetes? Yet mental illness is an illness like any other. If we receive a diagnosis of a thyroid condition do we assume that we are weak, that we have somehow brought this on ourselves because of some inherent flaw in our nature? Again, this is often the reaction to receiving a diagnosis of depression or anxiety. How much greater then is the stigma and the self-blame that attaches to the label schizophrenia? If ever a diagnostic term is guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of patients, relatives and carers this is it. To the unhelpful terms that started this article we add the image of a knife wielding, shower curtain ripping psychopath, clearly a risk to anyone who crosses his path. In Birmingham in the sixties, as part of an enlightened support strategy, the parents of adolescents diagnosed with schizophrenia were offered bereavement counselling. For all intents and purposes their child was dead to them, destined to a future of institutionalised care. The disease was untreatable; recovery simply not an option.
I have no wish to minimise or trivialise what can be a horrific and frightening experience but there are myths that have to be dispelled. First some facts. Approximately 1 in 100 people will be effected in a lifetime. The illness most frequently announces itself during late teens and early twenties and is more likely to affect men. Symptoms tend to develop slowly and can range from confused thoughts and a general sense of detachment to full blown hallucinations and delusions. A very common symptom is the phenomenon of hearing voices, of which more later.
The idea that sufferers are likely to be dangerous is a nonsense. Each year in the United Kingdom approximately 40 people are killed by someone suffering from a mental illness. This figure has remained fairly constant for some time and is statistically insignificant in a population of 63 million. People suffering from schizophrenia are much more likely to be a victim of violence or be a threat to themselves.
The belief that the condition is untreatable is also wrong. Early detection and intervention can make a massive difference. Huge advances have taken place in drug treatment. One third of people who receive the diagnosis will only ever have a single period of illness and no further symptons; one third may have recurrent episodes interspersed with periods when they are more than capable of living fulfilled and fulfilling lives. For the final third the illness can be severe and enduring. This is more likely to be the case if the situation is compounded by drink or drugs.
The Recovery movement is gathering momentum in the UK and internationally. Arguably it is a social revolution. Perceptions and practices are being challenged by the accumulated experiences of individuals who have grown well beyond the assumed limitations of the diagnosis.
Despite important research on prevalence, causes, treatments and sophisticated mind mapping techniques there is still something unsatisfactory about the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Is there a risk that in our urge to fix we end up pathologising those human experiences that are difficult to explain? Other cultures place a completely different value on hearing voices. The voice hearer can be seen as the chosen one, someone with remarkable gifts. This perception in itself must be more conducive to recovery than a litany of abuse and innuendo.