Erratic. Volatile. Complicated. These are the unfortunate words that people often think of when they think of someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia - which in turn has caused a stigma that has lead to fear and isolation for those most vulnerable. A movement has developed, made up of scientists, medical professionals, mental health advocates, and those with the diagnosis, to change the name. In this week’s article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of the name change proposition as well as explain what led to the idea in the first place.
What is Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that affects less than 1% of the population. When it’s in its ‘active phase’, symptoms can include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, trouble with thinking, and lack of motivation. Research has shown that schizophrenia affects men and women fairly equally but may have an earlier onset in males. As with any illness, the severity, duration and frequency of symptoms can vary. The symptoms are why Dr. Eugen Bleuler named the disorder in 1908 - the term ‘schizophrenia’ derives from Greek words for “split mind” - because Dr. Bleuler thought the disease was characterized by a “splitting of psychological functions” where “the personality loses its unity.” But it turns out the condition was named erroneously.
Researchers believe that a number of genetic and environmental factors contribute to the cause of schizophrenia, as well, life stress may also play a role in the start of symptoms. But since multiple factors may contribute, scientists aren’t yet sure of the exact cause in each individual case.
Modern Treatment Means Symptoms are Very Manageable
While there is no cure for schizophrenia, the good news is that research has led to innovative and safe treatments which means most symptoms will greatly improve and the likelihood of recurrence is diminished. A combination of pharmaceutical treatment and therapeutic treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy or supportive psychotherapy may reduce symptoms and enhance functioning. Additional treatments are aimed at reducing stress, supporting employment, and improving social skills.
Yet a Stigma Still Exists
So even while treatment helps dissipate symptoms, the complexity of schizophrenia may help explain why there are misconceptions about the disease. Contrary to what Dr. Bleuler thought when he named the disease over one hundred years ago, schizophrenia does not result in split personalities or multiple personalities. Most people with schizophrenia are no more dangerous than people in the general population. However, you’d never know this based on how people with the diagnosis are portrayed in TV, film, and other media. And as with most stigmas around mental health issues, stigmas perpetuate fear, make “others” out of those with the diagnosis, and in turn encourage isolation - all of which worsen the lives of already vulnerable individuals. Research has found that “public, anticipated, and self-stigma decrease healthcare seeking and treatment adherence, and create barriers to pursuing independent living” for those living with the condition..
Would a Name Change Help Reduce the Stigma?
This is how the idea of renaming schizophrenia came about. Said a recent New York Times article, "The idea is that replacing the term ‘schizophrenia’ with something less frightening and more descriptive will not only change how the public perceives people with the diagnosis but also how people with the diagnosis see themselves." Japan and South Korea have already changed the name to “Integration Disorder '', which is the term for which many in the re-naming movement are advocating.
Most of the mental health community is behind the name change. A survey by the World Psychiatric Association showed that approximately half of mental health professionals around the world believe schizophrenia needs a new label, and over half believe the term is stigmatizing. Another 2021 poll found that 74% of stakeholders (mental health professionals, family members, researchers, government officials, and more) found the name stigmatizing and favored a name change.
In the Meantime, How Can We Help Reduce the Stigma?
Regardless of where you stand on the name change, the most important thing is to understand that schizophrenia is a physical disease of the brain - and like other medical diseases - it is treatable today. Much research has been done on how to reduce the stigma around this diagnosis, and that research has found that if we commit to educating society about schizophrenia, promote accurate representations of schizophrenia, and prioritize advocacy, we may help reduce the stigma.
The New York Times: ‘Schizophrenia’ Still Carries a Stigma. Will Changing the Name Help?
American Psychiatric Association: What is Schizophrenia?
National Alliance for Mental Illness: The Consequences of Stigma Surrounding Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia Bulletin: Reducing Stigma Toward Individuals With Schizophrenia Using a Brief Video: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Young Adults