Stigma can be a problem with any type of mental illness because many issues with psychological health are largely misunderstood by the public. The stigma that surrounds mental illness is not only insulting, it can create barriers for people who need to seek help but are afraid of being judged by others.
Even though roughly one quarter of the world’s population suffers from some type of mental illness, there is still a stigma that keeps these people marginalized. One of the illnesses that experience the greatest stigma is schizophrenia, a devastating mental disorder that affects about 1 percent of the general population.
The stigma exists because this illness is poorly understood among those that have never experienced or witnessed it firsthand. Although the symptoms of the illness can include hallucinations, delusions and cognitive impairments the term can call to mind a more violent image when people think of schizophrenia. Some clinicians believe that changing the name of the illness may help reduce some of the stigma.
Negative Connotations of Schizophrenia
Because schizophrenia is not a terribly common illness, most people have not known someone personally with the disorder. When the average person hears the term “schizophrenia” it can call to mind an image of someone with a split personality, who hears disturbing imaginary voices or sees frightening visions, and has violent outbursts.
Health advocates believe that there is a great deal of misunderstanding around schizophrenia and what people who have the illness really experience. Dr. Jim Van Os, a psychiatrist in the Netherlands, has written a paper calling for updated classifications around schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders as a way to reduce prejudice and misperceptions about the illness.
A growing number of clinicians are on board with this point of view as they feel that the term schizophrenia has too many negative associations that do not reflect the reality of what it means to have the mental disorder.
Finding a Neutral and More Accurate Term
Dr. Van Os’ paper was published in the British Medical Journal and it argues that using the term schizophrenia needless scares patients by calling to mind a debilitating brain disease and the word should be removed from the International Classification of Diseases as well as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He also suggests that the term be replaced with a more neutral, updated label such as “psychosis spectrum disorder”.
The word schizophrenia comes from the Greek words meaning “split” and “mind”. The term originated in times when psychotic patients were treated inhumanely in insane asylums and little was understood about the disease. Clinicians believe the term still carries the connotations from its origin in the late 19th and early 20th century, calling to mind patients in asylums.
Terms like “depression” are now understood in the modern sense as many people experience depression in some form. Schizophrenia is term that has nothing to do with the illness itself and is something people cannot relate to or understand in their own terms.
Countries like Japan and Korea have already eliminated the term and replaced it with a more accurate name – “integration dysregulation syndrome”. The change yielded positive results and patients were better able to cope with their diagnoses, were more likely to seek help for the illness and less likely to commit suicide.
Current classifications do not acknowledge the continuity between schizophrenia and other disorders which exist on a spectrum much like the autism spectrum. Clinicians like Van Os argue that schizophrenia should not be separated into a worst-prognosis category but should be identified as one end of a spectrum rather than its own ailment. Many have already found that changing the way they talk about or explain the disorder to their patients has helped them better cope with a diagnosis.
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