Think you understand schizophrenia? Learn about the myths and realities surrounding this complicated disease.

Understanding schizophrenia: Myths & reality

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The word schizophrenia — and the condition itself — evokes a strong response. Thoughts often come to mind of people confined to mental hospitals, living on the street or showing violent tendencies. Schizophrenia, however, is not defined by these circumstances or behaviors.

Exploring Schizophrenia’s Major Misconceptions

People with schizophrenia are often confused with those having a split personality or having psychopathy — an outdated term now referred to as antisocial personality disorder, according to Dr. Justin Petri, medical director for inpatient psychiatric services at Sentara Healthcare.

“Antisocial personality disorder and split personality disorder both have different genetic, environmental and psychological causes. They have different treatments and different prognoses,” he explains.

Dr. Petri cites another misconception of schizophrenia related to violence. The reverse is actually true about people with schizophrenia being violent toward others.

“Something frequently played out in the press is that patients with schizophrenia are dangerous and the public needs to be protected from them,” says Dr. Petri. “In fact, what is more accurate is that these patients have cognitive deficits that make it so they are more likely to be the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator.”

The media plays a large role in spreading these myths. “We are dealing with a long history of misinformation. Script writers for movies — who a lot of times have no medical background — find themselves creating stories for schizophrenic patients that simply are not accurate,” says Dr. Petri.

Scientific Advancements Sharpen The Picture

Much of what we’ve come to understand about schizophrenia comes from science. Research has offered insight into the otherwise hazy picture that existed about the challenges of schizophrenia.

“Schizophrenia is much better understood at the molecular level than most other psychiatric illnesses,” says Dr. Petri. “The dopamine hypothesis has played a large part in advancing our knowledge of how to treat schizophrenia using antipsychotic medications.”

Dopamine is one of several important chemical messengers that allows the neurons in our brain to function correctly. It is extremely important that dopamine is present in the right amounts to avoid problems. A deficiency of dopamine can lead to Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms, while an excess leads to the paranoia and hallucinations that characterize untreated schizophrenia.

“The dopamine hypothesis posits that people with schizophrenia have a dysfunction of the dopaminergic neurons in their brain, and the subsequent treatment attempts to influence levels of dopamine in certain parts of the brain,” says Dr. Petri.

In addition to advances in science, increased observation of schizophrenic patients has led to a more clearly defined list of symptoms.

Are You At Risk For Schizophrenia?

The risk factors for schizophrenia are continually being researched. What can be said so far is that schizophrenia is a result of issues surrounding brain chemistry and brain structure, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

NAMI points to research that suggests schizophrenia may be linked to a viral infection adversely impacting the brain very early in life or by mild brain damage stemming from birth complications.

Factors outside of anyone’s control may also be at play. “Schizophrenia clearly has a genetic underpinning, and it has been known to run in families,” says Dr. Petri.

Curbing certain behavior may also prevent schizophrenia from becoming a slippery slope. “Drug abuse may push someone who is already at increased risk or showing symptoms over the edge into full-blown schizophrenia,” explains Dr. Petri.

It’s not yet known whether there is a causal relationship between drug abuse and the condition.

Resources For Those With Schizophrenia

For those who may have schizophrenia, the best resource is professional medical attention.

Dr. Petri also suggests three ways for a friend or family member to get help:

  1. Ensure medication is taken if it’s needed.
  2. Become involved in family health groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 
  3. Try to empathize with what a friend or family member is going through.