Most people are familiar with the term schizophrenia. They associate it with insanity, a name for that “crazy person they saw on the street,” or even as a joke when they’re around someone acting unusually strange. 

The thing is, people rarely have a correct understanding of schizophrenia. It is a disease, and unfortunately, one that can only be treated and not cured. A lifelong illness affecting 1 percent of the population, it occurs across races, cultures, and socio-economic groups all over the world. Schizophrenia usually first appears in men in their late teens and women in their early to mid-20s, making this degenerative disease one that starts early. According to the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, 360,000 people live with the disease in Canada, with 140,000 of those people living in Ontario. 

What does schizophrenia actually look like? Contrary to popular belief, it is not someone with split personalities. Most people with the disease are not violent, as often assumed. The signs and symptoms are divided into three main categories: positive, negative, and cognitive. Positive symptoms are ones that occur additionally to what a healthy person would experience in normal life. These include hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders (such as making up words with no meaning), and movement disorders, which include abnormal body movements. A person with negative symptoms often needs help with everyday tasks and reverts to social withdrawal and difficulty showing emotions. They may speak in a dull voice, show no facial expression, and speak very little to others. Lastly are cognitive symptoms, which may be difficult to see but can make it hard for a person to take care of themselves, including struggling to process information to make decisions. 

Because it is a neurodevelopmental disorder, schizophrenia affects how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. This means that living with the disease takes a toll on all aspects of life, from education to employment, to social interactions. It also affects how the outside world sees them, as many of the illness manifestations are difficult to hide. 

Someone with schizophrenia may talk about unusual ideas, have disorganized speech, or alternatively sit for hours without moving or speaking. They may see things that aren’t really there or hear voices around them. Often these voices are persecutory, telling them they will hurt them or their loved ones or that they are controlling their mind. These voices sound as though they are coming from a loudspeaker, even though there’s nothing there. Of course, the voices and visions are not only annoying, but extremely disturbing, and can often cause those suffering to withdraw from those around them. Those affected are in fear most of the time. Seeing this is also upsetting for family and friends. Without education on how to approach and help someone with schizophrenia, someone’s reaction to the symptoms could make those with the illness feel worse.

One way to help family and friends understand those with the disease is for them to experience it. In the PlayStation 4 game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the main character is plagued with constant voices and sounds. Known as “Furies” in the game, those playing can feel the distraction, annoyance, and sometimes frightening words. As schizophrenia creates a difficulty in organizing one’s thoughts, hallucinations make having a clear mind an even greater challenge. Experiencing just one aspect of the illness’s symptoms promotes not only sympathy but an understanding of schizophrenia.

This is just one reason why resources for both the affected individuals and families are so important. Large governing bodies like the American Psychiatric Association, National Institute of Mental Health, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and more localized efforts like the Schizophrenic Society of Ontario and Centre for Addiction & Mental Health provide literature and in-person consultations to provide education. All of these supply up-to-date research on the disease, as well as guidance for individuals affected and their loved ones.  

Located in the city is the Hamilton Program for Schizophrenia (HPS), which helps individuals with schizophrenia with programs like case management (assessing current medications) to develop a treatment plan, peer support, various clubs and sports, as well as daily activities. Only 15 per cent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia are employed in Canada (though rarely full-time positions), so initiatives like these that provide daily occupation are extremely valuable.

To learn more:

Hamilton Program for Schizophrenia

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Schizophrenia Society of Ontario

National Institute for Mental Health