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B.C. society calls for end to schizophrenia stigma on national awareness day

Abbotsford News - 5/25/2024

B.C. landmarks will light up purple on Friday evening to call attention to a mental illness few people know much about, despite its pervasiveness.

May 24th marks National Schizophrenia and Psychosis Awareness Day in Canada.

By Canadian estimates, about one per cent of people have schizophrenia, but the B.C. Schizophrenia Society says the actual figure is very likely quite a bit higher. The non-profit believes the prevalence is closer to 1.8 per cent of people, or around 100,977 British Columbians.

Determining an exact figure is difficult, in part, because of the stigma surrounding the mental illness, B.C. Schizophrenia Society Interior Regional Manager Bonnie Spence-Vinge said. People are often deterred from getting diagnosed out of fear of how it will define them and how people will perceive them, she explained.

While open conversation around other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression has been increasingly normalized in recent years, the same has not been done for schizophrenia. Spence-Vinge said this means a long list of misconceptions and fears remain around the illness.

A couple of myths Spence-Vinge said she commonly hears are that people with schizophrenia are prone to violence and that they have split personalities. Neither is true.

When people are receiving proper treatment, they are no more likely than anyone else to be violent, Spence-Vinge said. In fact, research shows people with schizophrenia may be more likely to be at the receiving end of violence than the average person. One study that followed 172 people with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder in Los Angeles from 1989 to 1991, found they were at least 14 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to be arrested for one.

Spence-Vinge said this can happen when someone doesn't understand that a person has schizophrenia and why they may be acting a certain way.

"Sometimes people will respond out of fear, potentially, or anger and can be violent towards an individual who is different."

She said the split personalities myth is derived from the fact that people mix up someone having dissociative identity disorder – a completely different mental illness – with the hallucinations and delusions people with schizophrenia can experience.

The last misconception Spence-Vinge said she often hears is that a schizophrenia diagnosis is an "end point." There is no cure for the mental illness, but medication and treatment can make a huge difference and Spence-Vinge said there is plenty of room for recovery.

In order to ensure people are getting that help, however, Spence-Vinge said there needs to be a serious focus on public education.

"Everybody needs to learn more and know more about mental illness so that we get rid of the stigma, we get rid of the anxiety and the fear, and we are more ready and able to engage with people."

Here are some quick facts on schizophrenia:

  • It isn't known what causes schizophrenia, but researchers believe it is likely a combination of factors. Some things believed to predispose people to the illness or trigger it in them are a family history with schizophrenia, differences in brain development, adverse childhood experiences, stressful life events, substance use and head injuries
  • Schizophrenia usually begins when someone is in their teens and twenties, although it can also come up later in life, usually between the ages of 40 and 60. It can also occur in people before their teenage years, but this is less common.
  • Schizophrenia presents differently from person to person, but some possible symptoms include: hearing voices or seeing things other people can't, feeling immune to danger, feeling like someone is following you, preferring to spend time alone, having difficulty forming thoughts, concentrating or remembering things, feeling confused, lacking interest, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling anxious, angry or sad a lot of the time.
  • Schizophrenia is treatable. While there is no cure, a combination of medication, psychotherapy and supports can help people manage the mental illness.
  • The portrayal of people with schizophrenia in movies and T.V. shows is often as violent or crime-seeking. Mental health experts say the depiction is not only inaccurate, but stigmatizing and harmful for people who do live with the mental illness.

The B.C. Schizophrenia Society is urging British Columbians to show their support on Friday by wearing purple. Landmarks throughout the province, including BC Place, the B.C. Legislature, White Rock Pier and the World's Largest Hockey Stick, among others, will also be lighting up purple to mark the day.