Ever see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” The movie paints a picture of despair, in which characters suffering from schizophrenia are confined to a grim, violent, and hopeless life in an institution presided over by the sadistic Nurse Ratched.
That’s Hollywood. In real life, it looks more like “A Beautiful Mind” and treating schizophrenia is a lot different. “If it’s addressed early, treatments can be very effective. People can finish college and hold down jobs and lead full, successful, satisfying lives,” says Anil Malhotra, M.D., director of psychiatry research at Zucker Hillside Hospital, a behavioral health center in Glen Oaks, New York.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 1.5 million Americans struggle with this serious chronic condition, which is marked by hallucinations and delusions.
Schizophrenia begins as a young person’s condition, and that’s part of what makes it so challenging. This condition appears in men by the late teens or early twenties, whereas in women, symptoms tend to appear a little later—usually by around the age of 30.
“The symptoms occur at such a critical point in development,” says Dr. Malhotra, “just as young people are launching their adult lives. It can be devastating if proper evaluation and treatment are not initiated early in the course of illness.” Luckily, says Dr. Malhotra, there are ways to do just that.
Understanding the Myths Versus the Realities of Schizophrenia
Thanks in part to films like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” schizophrenia is surrounded by antiquated myths and misunderstandings. Knowing the difference between truth and fiction can show you what to look out for, and may even help you reach out and help a friend in need. Here’s a look at the realities of schizophrenia.
Reality #1: Schizophrenia has nothing to do with multiple personalities.
“There is a condition that used to be called multiple personality disorder, and is now called dissociative identity disorder,” Dr. Malhotra says, “but that’s totally unrelated.”
Why the confusion? It may have to do with the fact that the word schizophrenia comes from the Greek root words schizen, which means splitting, and phren, which means mind. In the case of schizophrenia, the split happens between emotions and reality—not with personality.
Still, a National Alliance on Mental Illness survey showed that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that people with schizophrenia have two distinct—and often conflicting—personalities occupying their one brain. This misperception makes schizophrenia seem a lot scarier than it actually is.
Even though Hollywood has painted schizophrenia as a violent existence, the reality is that quick action when schizophrenia first presents itself can make this fictional depiction just that—fiction. Living with schizophrenia can be normal, fulfilling, and productive when you or your loved one gets the care needed—especially if it’s sooner rather than later.