3 ways to change your thinking about mental illness

(NC) As we become more open to talking about schizophrenia and mental illness, we are starting to realize how common it is and how necessary it is to break down the stigmas surrounding it. Still, it can be hard to shake off the misunderstandings that we’ve learned.

Stigma is one of the biggest social challenges affecting people with schizophrenia and serious mental illness. Nearly 40% of people with mental health issues report experiencing stigma – three times the rate of stigma faced by those without these problems. Stigma undermines self-worth, making it more difficult to access care and services, and puts barriers in place to employment, housing, community and social supports.

“An illness like schizophrenia can change the way a person interacts,” explains Dr. Randall F. White, medical director of Vancouver Community Mental Health Services. “There’s a stereotype of hearing voices or being paranoid, but the main symptoms are usually losses in functioning, motivation, memory, and the ability to express emotions – and these can make it hard to relate.”

Here, White offers some advice on how to challenge some common misunderstandings about mental illness and wants you to rethink how you approach schizophrenia and mental illness. 

Remember people with mental illness are not dangerous. “People with severe mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it,” says White.

People with severe mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violence than the general public. They are more likely to be arrested and hurt, either during arrest or while incarcerated. They are also more likely to become homeless, putting them at additional risk of violence and unsafe situations.

Understand that people with mental illness can still have families and careers. “We don’t have a cure for something like schizophrenia, but recovery is always a real possibility,” says White. “With appropriate treatment and support, people are able to go on to fulfill common life goals like finishing school, and having a career and family.”

Like any chronic illness, symptoms can flare up. But when patients work with their treatment teams, these minor setbacks won’t interrupt their daily lives.

Don’t mistake mental illnesses for weaknesses. “Assigning blame is not helpful for anyone,” says White. “The stigma that people are somehow to blame for their condition isn’t true, it just makes people lose self-esteem and hope, and that makes it much harder to recover.”

Research currently shows that there is no clear cause of schizophrenia but the interaction of factors like genetics, brain chemistry and external environmental influences (i.e. substance use) increase the risk.

Find more information on how to challenge your own thinking at www.bcss.org.