Mental health stigma is alive and well, but some conditions are more stigmatized than others. Schizophrenia, which can lead to a disconnection from reality called psychosis, remains one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions. Adults with this condition are often shunned and ignored, with between one-third and one-half of people with schizophrenia ending up homeless.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) recently released a report designed in part to undermine the stigma associated with schizophrenia and psychosis. The report claims that, far from being the product of an abnormal mind, some symptoms are part of the “normal” continuum of human experience.
Could Psychosis Be ‘Normal’?
The report, which draws upon current research into psychosis and schizophrenia, offers several new proposals. The report argues that there’s no easy way to differentiate psychosis from “normal” human experience, suggesting that psychosis doesn’t always have to be the product of an illness; it can also be a reaction to unusual or highly stressful circumstances. For many people, the experience of hearing voices is a reaction to trauma or abuse, and labeling this experience as an illness can be dismissive and unhelpful.
The report also highlights cultural differences in the approach to unusual psychological experiences. Some cultures embrace hearing voices as a religious experience. In fact, one 2014 study found that the voices people hear are shaped by cultural forces. The BPS also emphasizes that psychosis does not play a role in violence—a common misconception.
The Science of Psychosis
The report isn’t just an attempt to reduce mental health stigma. Instead, it reflects cutting-edge research in mental health, which currently points away from schizophrenia as a single disorder or diagnosis. The report, for example, highlights the potential effectiveness of antipsychotic medication, but emphasizes that these medications do not “correct” a biological abnormality.
It’s a common misconception that schizophrenia is genetic or biologically distinct, but the report also argues against this popular idea. There’s no clear list of symptoms separating schizophrenia from other mental health symptoms, and in 2013, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health announced that researchers had failed to identify any unique biological markers or pathways for schizophrenia.
Rejecting Mental Health Stigma
Stigma can undermine people’s willingness to seek help for mental health issues, and can make the process of getting help feel demoralizing. A few simple changes in the way you talk about and conceive of mental health issues, though, can reduce the role you play in mental health stigma:
- Use “people first” language; a person is not a schizophrenic, but instead a person with schizophrenia.
- Avoid language that belittles or turns mental health issues into a joke. Using “crazy” or “insane” as an insult can be hurtful.
- Don’t rely on a diagnosis to explain another person’s behavior, particularly when the behavior is better explained by a typical experience, such as anxiety or frustration.
- Don’t use language that suggests mental health issues are different from physical health issues, or that treats mental health concerns as something over which people have control.
- Don’t attempt to force medication or therapy on a person who has rejected them; instead, ask what you can do to be helpful.
- Respect the wishes and listen to the specific needs of people with mental health issues, even when those needs contradict standard practice for reducing mental health stigma. For example, if a friend with schizophrenia finds comfort in frequently referring to her “illness” or calling herself a “schizophrenic,” don’t correct him/her.
- About schizophrenia. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sardaa.org/resources/about-schizophrenia/
- Cooke, A. (2014). Understanding psychosis and schizophrenia [PDF]. Leicester: British Psychological Society.
- Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says. (2014, July 16). Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/july/voices-culture-luhrmann-071614.html
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