In our society, the disease of schizophrenia is shrouded in fear, isolation and ignorance.
The initial symptoms, which include hearing voices, mental delusions and paranoia, may at first be attributed to a bad day, an odd drug reaction, or any other number of conditions. Someone having these experiences does not suspect that a journey is beginning that may change their life and the lives of those they love.
I remember when my close friend, whom we will call Chris, began to experience the debilitating indications of the disease. As a supporter and embracer of the sixties’ culture, he had experimented with numerous and varied hallucinogenic drugs. While he didn’t seem affected at that time, several years later we all began to notice disturbing changes in his once amiable and warm personality. Odd behaviors such as furtive looks, false accusations concerning our motives, talking to himself or to figments of his imagination started intermittently, but soon began to control his actions and destroy his relationships with others.
The victims of this disease rarely wake up one day with a full-blown case of firmly established schizophrenia. It is a gradual descent into an increasing level of confusion and delusion. Normality whirls and reels and there seems to be no solid ground. In spite of this, the warning signs may get swept under the rug or minimized and each ‘good day’ brings tenuous hope.
The victim, whose world has been indescribably altered, is confused and focused on simply making it through each moment. To them, finding treatment might feel more threatening than helpful. Victims of the disease hope that it will just go away; they don’t know where to go for assistance or feel treatment will be too expensive
Early and sustained treatment of the disease is one of the primary aids in success with schizophrenic patients. Seeking help for our friend at this early stage may have made a difference in his long-term wellness. I’m sad to say, however, that we did not seek help when we should have. For us, a lack of understanding, shame, and not wanting to face the reality that was happening in our lives slammed the door to outside assistance. But when we finally faced up to the reality of what was going on, finding reliable information about the disease and treatment was extraordinarily difficult.
If it is to fall to family or close friends to intervene in a loved one’s life when the symptoms of schizophrenia become evident, readily available information about the disease, the symptoms, and access to treatment is imperative.
Although schizophrenia cannot be cured, early treatment can make all the difference in the ability to lead a productive and fulfilling life. New anti-psychotic medications are being developed and tested toward the goal of an increasingly effective treatment plan. Personal therapy has been shown to improve behavior and help the patient recognize and control triggers that might begin or escalate a psychotic episode.
In the face of these medical facts, it is deeply disturbing that less than 50% of those suffering with this illness actually receive treatment. It’s been said that a nation is only as healthy as its individual members. Providing access to the wide range of health care available for those suffering from schizophrenia should be a priority for our society.
Because schizophrenia only affects about 1% of the general population, it is not prioritized over more prevalent conditions such as substance abuse or bipolar disorder, affecting about 9% and 5% of people, respectively. It is known that pre-emptive health care and education can significantly reduce the societal burden, medically and financially, but resources can only be allocated so far before they are stretched thin. The long-term inpatient and outpatient care required to treat schizophrenics justifies an increased portion of our health care budget towards schizophrenia. Advertising campaigns are needed, which could provide educational materials that can increase the awareness of the associated symptoms so that intervention can occur earlier. Immediate access to services such as hotlines could help remove the complexity of the process and direct the individual on the proper steps towards receiving treatment.
Of course there remains a societal stigma surrounding schizophrenia. Popular media reinforces these negative views. In addition, then, we need to educate the public in about mental illnesses, and especially episodes of psychosis. The general attitude must shift from a shunning stance to an accepting embrace and a willingness to help those we can’t understand. The shame of a schizophrenia diagnosis cannot be stronger than the suffering of the schizophrenic. This can be reversed by teaching understanding and compassion to the masses with educational campaigns similar to those teaching about more prevalent disorders, such as the DARE program for substance abuse.
It has been approximately 10 years since we knew that ‘something’ was wrong with Chris. We have watched the debilitating effects of the disease steal the delightful, fun-loving personality from him. He currently lives in a care home and receives the needed medication to quiet the voices in his head and suppress the delusions that rise to the surface of his thoughts. We are grateful that he has peace now. Yet the years when his diagnosis was unclear, our information was limited and access to care not adequate can never be regained. This is partially our own fault for not seeking the information and help as diligently as we should have, but when we did look for help we faced enormous difficulty in gaining information and access.
Helping people with schizophrenia get early treatment will require both policy and personal changes. Even if health agencies improve information and access, families still must confront stigma, fear and misunderstanding. Yes, it will be difficult for you or your loved one to express a need for during these acute episodes. Yes, the available information is full of medical jargon and other complexities. But do all that you can as soon as you can. If you or a friend or loved one is experiencing schizophrenia or has in the past, please take it upon yourself to help spread the information and make it easily accessible to as many people as possible.