5 myths about schizophrenia, according to a mental health expert: ‘Huge stigma’

About 1% of Americans, or nearly 3.5 million people, are affected by schizophrenia — yet the mental disorder remains highly stigmatized and misunderstood, experts say.

The reason, according to Brooke Kempf, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner based in Indiana, is a general lack of knowledge about schizophrenia.

“People may see somebody hallucinating and think, ‘That is schizophrenia,’ when there’s so much more to the illness,” she told Fox News Digital in an interview. 

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“It’s important for people to recognize that schizophrenia is a diagnosed and treatable medical condition.”

For World Schizophrenia Day, Kempf shared some of the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding the disorder.

Here’s a look at five. 

One of the greatest and “most harmful” myths is the notion that people living with schizophrenia are “scary” or “violent,” Kempf said.

“There is a long history of conflating TV or movie characters who are behaving in odd, confusing or frightening ways with a diagnosis of schizophrenia,” she said. 

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“However, we have to remember that these are made-up, dramatized situations. A diagnosis of schizophrenia doesn’t have anything to do with what we see on the screen.”

When patients with schizophrenia experience an acute episode — perhaps having delusions or hearing voices — they might behave differently than they typically would, sometimes seeming angry or violent.

“The person is likely experiencing something within themselves that they might be arguing about or responding to, but they aren’t targeting anything toward another person,” Kempf said.

When symptoms are managed with medication, “you would probably have no idea of their diagnosis,” she noted.

“Through my long history of working in community mental health and hearing their stories, I know that people living with schizophrenia are good, caring, loving people,” Kempf said. 

“They are more likely,” she added, “to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator of one.”

There is a misconception that people with schizophrenia have multiple personalities, which could be because the Greek word “schizophrenia” means “split mind,” Kempf noted.

“However, people with schizophrenia do not have split personalities,” she said. 

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“They might have different behavioral characteristics when they’re ill and experiencing an episode, but it’s not because they have a split personality.”

This assumption is completely false, according to Kempf.

“If the illness isn’t well managed and continues to progress, or they have repeated relapses, patients will lose gray matter in their brains, and their cognitive function may decline,” she told Fox News Digital.

“But that does not mean they’re not intelligent.”

Some patients may experience cognitive decline in the early stages of the disease — referred to as the “prodromal phase,” Kempf said — but early diagnosis and intervention can help prevent that.

Kempf said she has worked with a multitude of “very successful individuals who also happen to live with schizophrenia.”

In many cases, she noted, people can no longer see the “highly intelligent individual” behind the disease.

“As long as individuals with schizophrenia get the proper treatment — ideally with a long-acting injectable (LAI) medication — they can keep their symptoms controlled and function very well,” Kempf said. 

Schizophrenia consists of what is clinically termed “positive” and “negative” symptoms, Kempf noted.

“Delusions and hallucinations, as well as changes in behavior and thoughts, are considered positive symptoms,” she said. 

Patients experiencing these symptoms may hear voices or have extra thoughts, delusions or fixed false beliefs, the expert explained. 

“Hallucinations are not just hearing voices,” Kempf said. “They can occur in multiple ways based on our senses — seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling things.”

Negative symptoms are when people lose interest in the world around them, withdraw or don’t take an interest in everyday social interactions, according to Kempf. 

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“Patients with schizophrenia may get labeled as ‘lazy,’ or they don’t seem as put together,” she said. “But it’s not about laziness. The person’s brain doesn’t connect these things as being important.”

People with schizophrenia may also experience what are referred to as “psychomotor” symptoms, Kempf said — they might seem abnormally slow, and their speech and thought processes can be somewhat delayed or disorganized.

“Unfortunately, if these negative symptoms continue and there isn’t treatment, they can impact cognitive functioning.”

Hospitalization for a person experiencing acute schizophrenia symptoms is usually very short, according to Kempf. 

“In an inpatient setting, for someone having an episode of schizophrenia, the average length of stay may be about five days,” she said.

“If a patient doesn’t respond to medication and can’t function safely on their own, they might have to go to a longer-term, higher-level setting.”

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Today, health care providers aim to give people with schizophrenia community-based services so that they’re able to function on their own, Kempf noted.

This might mean supporting them with employment services and housing opportunities to ensure that they have an affordable and safe place to live. 

“Some patients continue to live with their family members; some might live in a group home,” Kempf said.

From a medical perspective, schizophrenia has different levels of severity, the expert noted. 

“But, again, if managed well, with early intervention, an individual can remain high-functioning and live independently,” she said. 

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“Our goal is the least structured environment possible, enabling the person to live a normal life where they can work, grocery shop and drive on a day-to-day basis.” 

Ultimately, Kempf said, schizophrenia should be viewed as a disease, not a choice. 

“While schizophrenia is a mental health diagnosis, it should be thought of no differently than a physical health diagnosis of diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease,” she said.

“It just impacts a different organ: the brain.”

Other brain disorders, such as epilepsy, tend to be more accepted by society, she said — but there is still a “huge stigma” surrounding diseases like schizophrenia, “probably because of the fear of the unknown.”

“It is treatable, and both medication and support services are available,” she told Fox News Digital. 

“We all have a role to play in helping to dispel myths, foster understanding and reduce stigma,” she continued. 

“People living with this disease deserve to be treated like human beings and with the same care we would provide someone diagnosed with a physical illness.”

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