Partly because of my friend “A”, and partly because of Mad Pride Week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of the label “schizophrenia”. There’s been so much discussion about it in recent years, and people are only just beginning to catch up.
It’s a strange term, with an “iffy” history and meaning. But a diagnosis can change a person’s life, employability, economic status and even result in brain damage – or suicide. Not to mention the unspoken assumptions by friends and relatives. Stigma bigtime. As a community, it’s time to take a fearless look at ourselves.
But what is this thing that people fear? As Dr Kwame McKenzie* says, ” …because we haven’t got the pathology, we can’t say what’s going on in the brain or the mind -or whatever, we try and find the symptoms and cluster symptoms together and we say ‘we’ve got this diagnosis or that diagnosis. And ‘schizophrenia’ is a number of symptoms that have been put together to say that this is an illness…and that’s an idea: it’s not a thing.” In other words, it’s not a discrete, easy to recognize, clearly definable disease that you either have, or don’t have.
McKenzie also points out that in identical twins, when one is diagnosed with schizophrenia, the other has only a less than 50% chance of getting a similar diagnosis. This throws ‘genetic’ assumptions into a moving stream.
Dr Gordon Warme, a U of T professor of psychiatry, says “I don’t want anybody telling me that I’m biologically abnormal when I’m not. I mean it’s the worst possible stigma you can put on somebody.” **
To me it’s a little like learning my neighbor has “cancer” – which tells me nothing about the kind of cancer they have, nor what can be done about it, nor a prognosis. The only similarity might be that I’d know my neighbor needs me to be a ‘good neighbor’ and supportive friend more than ever before.
But thanks to sensational newspaper headlines and dramatic TV news stories of extraordinarily rare events, people are afraid to have a “schizophrenic” neighbor. They feel it puts them at risk. Statistically, such a neighbor is more likely to be harmed than to harm others. In fact, more likely to harm himself – out of loneliness and fear.
Let’s celebrate Mad Pride Week by leaving that irrational fear behind, and getting a little education. In fact, make this the day you start to answer the question, “What change can I make?”
*head of CAMH’s schizophrenia unit. Check video yourself: http://recoverynetworktoronto.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/mars-project-jonathan-balazs-and-khari-conspiracy-stewart