Talking About Schizophrenia

Society has come a long way in how it views schizophrenia and other neurobiological disorders. In the past, suffers were ostracized, shut away in overcrowded institutions and subjected to bizarre experimental treatments. Many, including U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, advocated sterilization of the mentally ill, reasoning that the “feeble-minded and insane classes” posed a threat to the “British breed” and should not be allowed to reproduce.

Today, those suffering schizophrenia, with proper medication and therapy, can lead productive lives in society. However, a stigma is still attached to the disease. Broaching the subject is a delicate task, both for those with a schizophrenia diagnosis and those who surround the afflicted.  

What is schizophrenia?

The term schizophrenia was first used by Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Eugen Bleuler to describe a disorder typified by the apparent splitting of the mind, with patients existing in two separate realities. Symptoms include hallucinations, including auditory hallucinations (a voice inside the head), delusions, paranoia and disorganized speech. The use of violence is not a symptom, although in some individuals it may be a response to a hallucination or delusion.

What causes schizophrenia?

Researchers have been unable to determine why some people develop schizophrenia, although there are indications that genetics may play a role as it runs in families. Drug use and trauma may also contribute to the development of the disease.

How to talk about your own neurobiological disorder (NBD) with others

You may wish to hide your diagnosis from friends, co-workers and even close family members; the stigma attached to mental illnesses runs deep in our culture. However, recognize that a strong support system is important to your recovery. Only you can decide who should know of your illness. If you are an intrinsically introverted person, you may wish to keep your circle of confidants tight. The anti-stigma campaign, Time to Change, run by leading mental health charities in the U.K., offer these suggestions for discussing your illness with others:

  • Understand your own thoughts — Reflect on your own feelings about your illness. What are your fears and worries? What actions will you take towards treatment? You want to be able to clearly express your needs and desires going forward. Rehearse what you plan to say when broaching the subject until you feel confident in your wording and the amount of information you share.
  • Research your illness — Friends and family will undoubtedly have questions. Learn the facts about your disorder so you may convey them without emotional interference.
  • Be selective when choosing whom you will tell and how much you will reveal — You are building a support system. People in your life who you do not believe can offer unconditional support may not be the best ones to include in your circle. It is not necessary to give all the details of your diagnosis. Your own intuition should inform you of how much to reveal.
  • Do not focus exclusively on the negative — Be sure to include in your discussion the healing process and your optimism that you can overcome this disease.
  • You are not your disease — Remind your family and friends that you are still the same person they’ve always known, you are just dealing with a health issue that may affect your behavior.

How talk to someone about his or her neurobiological disorder (NBD)

As with any personal matter, etiquette demands a respect for privacy. If someone close to you reveals he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, your first instinct might be to avoid the topic, and maybe even the person. If it is someone you care for, this is untenable. You may be able to provide valuable support as this person is working toward recovery. Time to Change offers these suggestions for discussing a NBD with someone who is suffering:

  • Ask questions — Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are feeling. Your friend or family member will let you know if they wish to discuss their health with you. You do not want to appear as if you wish to avoid the topic.
  • Be aware of the non-verbal messages you are sending — If you are tense or avoiding eye contact, it will make any conversation awkward. Relax and remember the person is not the disease.
  • Avoid clichés and jokes — Telling someone to just, “put on a happy face” is not helpful and jokes about a debilitating illness are not appropriate.
  • Don’t confine your conversation to the illness — Schizophrenia is just one aspect of your loved one. A diagnosis doesn’t instantly drive away all other interests. Remember conversations you’ve had before your friend became ill.
  • Be informed — Learn as much as you can about Schizophrenia so that you may better understand the challenges facing your friend or family member.