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Schizophrenia is the Go-To Term for the Press

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 6, 2018 08:28

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The only thing certain about psychiatrists and the press throwing around diagnoses for mental illness is that they cannot be sure of anything other than the fact that mental illness is a problem that needs more attention.

After any shooting or event that involves violence, the talking heads are quick to pull out terms like “nut job,” “mental case” or “psycho.” The press then enlists an army of “psychiatrists” to give their opinions from afar as to what mental illness the person has. An easy go-to is “schizophrenia,” as the term has immediate recognition with the public as something bad and dangerous. Even criminals try to use stereotypical schizophrenia traits to prove mental illness after they are caught. In the case of Jesse Osborne, who shot three students and a teacher in 2016, he told police and evaluators that he suffered hallucinations and saw blue people. They concluded that he was lying. So what do people really know about schizophrenia, other than it being a mental illness catchphrase?  

It would be difficult for the average person to know what schizophrenia is, as trained psychiatrists themselves have trouble rendering correct opinions, even after spending weeks or months seeing a patient. There are so many variations of symptoms and behaviors that often overlap into other possible illnesses. That fact, combined with psychiatrists' understanding of how the brain works always changing and potential causes of mental illness ever-evolving, make it impossible for anyone, doctor or not, to definitively say what a person suffers from without ever spending any direct time with them. It is irresponsible, then, for psychiatrists to go on news shows diagnosing individuals they have never met.

Schizophrenia is hard to diagnose for a variety of reasons. The disorder most often presents itself in a person’s late teens when behaviors that might be part of the disease can mirror behaviors typical of teens going through normal life changes. In addition, many people with schizophrenia do not believe they are ill, so they do not seek treatment. The signs and symptoms of schizophrenia also significantly overlap with other forms of mental illness, which might need different treatments. To further complicate effective diagnoses, substance abuse can also lead to schizophrenic-like symptoms in someone with no mental illness. Correctly diagnosing schizophrenia is a lengthy process involving careful observation and analysis of symptoms over a period of months.

Regarding violent behavior, though those who suffer from schizophrenia can become violent in certain circumstances, in a clear majority of cases, they are not at risk for harming anyone other than themselves, as the suicide rate is significantly elevated among schizophrenics. Those diagnosed with schizophrenia who exhibit violent behavior are more often than not found to have other factors at play as well, often beginning in childhood, including antisocial personality disorder, which generally presents itself before the age of 15. The bottom line is that schizophrenia is a horrible disorder that rarely makes people violent, and with the correct diagnosis and treatment, it might help those that suffer from it to live productive lives.

As a side note, there was an interesting self-administered simulation by Anderson Cooper of what it is like to have schizophrenia.

Jeff Campbell

Posted on May 6, 2018 08:28

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Source: NYT
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Clockwise from top left: Barry Goldwater, Donald J. Trump, Lyndon B. Johnson and Thomas F. Eagleton.

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