Schizophrenia – Let’s Stop the Stigma

Our second guest blog for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 from Carole, a member of our community mental health hub in Watford. She generously gives an honest account of living with schizophrenia, her experience of what it has brought her, as well as the social stigma.

Carole is a published author of two books on schizophrenia and a collection of poetry.

I have suffered from schizophrenia since I was 27 and I am now 64 years old and no longer fear the label ‘schizophrenic’. Why? Because I have taken steps to understand my condition in spite of the wall of silence I met with from the medical profession.  Ignorance is not bliss and medication is only part of the answer to managing the condition.

What is schizophrenia?

It is now well established medically that schizophrenia is a disease related to the structure and function of the human brain and recent research points to genetic factors being involved. How can I describe schizophrenia? Imagine you have awakened from a frightening nightmare. But then relief. It was just a dream. But what if you were not asleep and you are fully conscious and that nightmare is your reality. You hear voices. They taunt you. You fear for yourself and perhaps all humanity. You see things that are not there. You are bombarded with thoughts and you believe you have no privacy of mind. Your senses become more acute and the sound of a car or the babble of voices is intolerable. People misunderstand you. They cannot reach you because they do not understand the road that you are travelling. Yes, it is a nightmare but there is no release with the morning.

Voices that arise in our dreams are considered natural and normal. If they cross over into our conscious world they are viewed with fear and the person labelled ‘deranged’. Surely, it is more constructive and progressive for the medical profession and patients to work sympathetically with these transmissions in co-operative partnership. But first the medical profession need to gain our confidence if we are to confide in them. I am not a doctor but common sense and fairness tells me this is the way ahead. Often there is no investigation of the contents of psychosis for fear of giving credence to delusions or provoking another attack. I think analysis would lead to the finding of common grounds between patients. There is often a strange logic to hallucinations. A schizophrenic’s behaviour is more intelligible than what most of the medical establishment suppose. Unless you can confront your unconscious world you cannot understand the true nature of your condition and the drugs you are prescribed will only suppress your symptoms. There is a need to make sense of the experience. How else can you find healing? But doctors are disinclined to chat with patients and prefer to remain aloof much to the disillusion of the patient.

How I live with schizophrenia

I try to analyse the surreal world of my psychoses and I hope with discernment and this has given me a greater awareness of myself and the world in which we live. I may in many respects be a slave to my condition but it is my attitude towards my illness that has changed. This has enabled me to grow and move forward. I am better able to manage my symptoms and lead a productive life. I find I need time and space to myself but try to balance that by social activity so I don’t get too introverted. I try to dispel some of the stigma surrounding schizophrenia by being open about it.

Actually, schizophrenia did not drive me insane: it drove me to delve deeper into my mind. The multitudes of thoughts that bombard my mind during an attack go from the very personal to my fear for all humanity. In many ways my illness has given me a philosophical insight into life which I otherwise would not have made. Happiness comes from within and my change in perception has led me to a greater freedom of mind and imagination. My religious beliefs would be seen as heretical but they come from my experience. There was much in me that had to be shed and there has emerged a more enlightened person.

Schizophrenia is both a biological and a social disease. There is the illness itself and the way we as a society view it. The stigma of mental illness left me with feelings of guilt and shame that took me years to overcome. It is only once you are free from the pressure of what others and society think that you can be more relaxed with yourself. Schizophrenia destroys your ego: you have to find it again in order to get well.

There is no cure for schizophrenia. It is a way of life. A gradual process of recovery and rehabilitation often marked by setbacks. Recovery is not getting rid of the symptoms but being able to face what has happened to you. With appropriate care and treatment we can live meaningful and stable lives in the community. We are not all unpredictable and dangerous.

The need for equality for mental health

There are many minds in torment in our society, many of whom are treated as outsiders or at worst criminals. It is inexcusable that people who are mentally ill should be in jail or living on the street. It is indefensible that people who are mentally ill should be treated less sympathetically than those with a physical illness.  Accidents can happen to the mind as well as the body. There is indeed a great need for education in all matters relating to mental health and doctors need to be trained to give sufferers insight into their condition.

Mental illness does not discriminate. It strikes across the divides of race, age, class and sexuality. Nowadays most people have been touched by mental illness. If they have not suffered themselves, they at least know someone who has. Society must learn to be more sympathetic.

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