Due to wrongful media portrayals, schizophrenia patients are often perceived as unseen monsters that are safely locked away in militarized institutions. As long as we don’t have to see them, we don’t have to deal with them, right? This manner of thinking couldn’t be more damaging. The reality is, mental illness can affect anyone.
Quite a few famous people have been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the past. And while it is true that some of them succumbed to their illness, there are also a few who managed to conquer the disorder and continue living their lives. This goes to show that being diagnosed doesn’t mean one’s life has ended.
Unfortunately, when this happened to my then 21-year old sister, a lot of her peers were quick to consider her an outcast. The same people who used to hang out with her and invite her to parties now shut her out without any prior warning. Watching her struggle with rejection due to her condition has taught me an important lesson about living with schizophrenia.
When My Sister Was First Diagnosed
According to statistics, there are over 21 million diagnosed with schizophrenia in the world right now. That is roughly the population of a small country in Europe, which means that the chances of meeting someone in this situation are higher than you’d think.
And it could be anyone: your cousin, your former roommate from college, or that sweet cashier at the local grocery store. It could be you someday. For me, it was my funny, smart and lively little sister. She was diagnosed when she was 21 years old, so roughly speaking four summers ago. Although our family always stood by her side, many of the people in her life didn’t.
I watched them leave her side, one by one. I barely understood what was happening back then, but I knew it wasn’t right for people to see her as a threat. One day, I was driving her to her doctor’s appointment, shortly after her best friend of 10 years had blocked her number out of the blue. We met her on the street and I felt like screaming at her.
But my sister didn’t. She just smiled and moved on, entering the building without a frown. Weeks later I would find out that she broke down in her psychiatrist’s office, and he had to put her on a new medication. The news tore me apart, and it made me resent the people that rejected her so bluntly even more.
Stigma and Common Misconceptions
The sad truth is that, even though schizophrenia is treatable and can be kept under control, patients are more often than not stigmatized and discriminated against. This is because we as members of this society have the toxic tendency to criminalize mental illness. Patients are perceived as being dangerous, violent, and unpredictable.
This is what I have noticed the most among my sister’s former friends. The people who were once eager to meet up with her and reveled in her bubbly personality started fearing she would harm them out of the blue. They stopped calling, they unfriended her on Facebook, and they looked away when they saw her in public.
We live in a small town in the Midwest and have to drive all the way to Indianapolis for her appointments. We’re in and out of the house a lot, which makes seeing these people inevitable. And when we do, I can’t help but notice the look on their faces. It’s not of pity or disgust. It is a look of fear, one that my sister did nothing to deserve.
Only 23% of the wrongdoings of those few holding this diagnosis were associated with their symptoms in any way. Most patients are nonviolent, and this is something I have witnessed myself, as exemplified by the situation above. And that isn’t the only mistaken belief that is being perpetuated by society.
A 2008 survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% think that schizophrenia is the same as having split personalities. This is another thing that my sister experienced firsthand. When she informed a few of her colleagues of her diagnosis, their first question was: “so, how many personalities DO you have?”.
After a while, explaining that that’s hardly the case gets tiresome, and no person with an already frail mental state should feel obligated to do so. If there is one thing that you can take away from my story, let it be this: educate yourself on the topic of mental illness, because sufferers shouldn’t have to deal with our ignorance on top of everything else.
The Bottom Line
Living with schizophrenia isn’t easy, and that’s partly due to society as well. As I watched my sister work through her issue, I noticed that her battle would have been a lot easier if her peers showed a bit more compassion and understood the situation better. In order for this to happen in the future, we all need to start learning more about the topic.
Alex Moore is a West Virginia psychology undergraduate enthralled with human nature. Mental faults and unique perspectives are his favorite topics. You can find him on Twitter: @alex_moore01