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The Truth Behind 4 Schizophrenia Myths

For years, schizophrenia was perceived as an incurable mental disorder that left its sufferers with little hope for a good life.

Even though that perspective has started to change—approximately 50% can have positive outcomes with the right treatment, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)—many myths about the disease still linger. Here’s the truth behind four common misconceptions. 

Myth #1: People with schizophrenia have split personalities. 
False. While the root word schizo does mean "split," multiple personalities and schizophrenia are two different mental disorders. People who have multiple personalities have dissociative identity disorder, which causes them to have two or more distinct personalities. The condition is quite rare, says John Preston, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and professor emeritus with Alliant International University in Sacramento, CA. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is more common, and affects 2.4 million Americans, according to NAMI.

It is characterized by psychosis, which is a loss of contact with reality, and interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, relate to others, and make decisions. While some of the symptoms overlap with dissociative identity disorder—both can cause hallucinations, delusions and depression—schizophrenia does not result in separate and distinct personalities.

Myth #2: People with schizophrenia are prone to violent behavior. 
False. According to a survey by NAMI, 60% of people thought violent behavior was a symptom of schizophrenia. In reality, most people with schizophrenia are not violent. Instead, they're more apt to withdraw from social interactions, preferring to be left alone. "People with schizophrenia who have paranoid delusions and substance abuse are at the highest risk for violence," Preston says. "But the bottom line is that most people with schizophrenia are not violent and the violence shown in the media contributes significantly to the negative stigma.

Myth #3: People with schizophrenia lack awareness of their distorted thinking. 
True. This is more truth than myth. Many people with schizophrenia are unaware that their behavior or thoughts are not rational, a condition known as anosognosia, the neurological tendency to have a lack of insight. Anosognosia can interfere with treatment, which in turn, affects quality of life. "Some people eventually develop insight," Preston says. "That means appreciating I have an illness, it’s a neurological disorder and it requires treatment. Without treatment, my life is going to be bad , and I’ll have emotional suffering, job problems and other difficulties."

Myth #4: People with schizophrenia can’t live satisfying, productive lives. 
True and false. Having schizophrenia is a lifelong struggle for most patients, Preston says. Many have a hard time forming relationships, poor lifestyle habits and difficulties holding down a job. But with proper treatment and a strong support system, about half of patients with schizophrenia are capable of living fulfilling lives. "It takes resilience and grit," says Lisa Halpern, who lives with schizophrenia.

A strong combination of family support, medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, Halpern says, eventually helped her regain her footing and launch a career as director of peer support for Vinfen Corp., a nonprofit in Cambridge, MA that provides services to adults with mental illness, developmental disabilities, and behavioral health disabilities. "But the condition is relentless, and you have to fight it every day," she says. 

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