Here's What's Wrong With How Media Portrays Schizophrenia

April 27th 2016

The term “schizo” is one of those insults that gets carelessly thrown around in conversation.

As in, “She’s such a schizo — one second, she’s as prim and proper as Mary Poppins and the next she’s acting like shaved-head era Britney Spears.”

While schizophrenia is a serious disorder without a cure, it is also treatable with medication and therapy, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. As many as 51 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia, and about 1.5 million people globally will be diagnosed with schizophrenia this year. Even though the disorder is complicated and nuanced, the heavy-handed stereotypes surrounding schizophrenia are rampant.

Popular media, from movies to television, don’t do much to dispel the stigma and misinformation surrounding the chronic and severe medical condition. In fact, it often creates and perpetuates myths about schizophrenia and its symptoms.

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, according to the National Institute of Health. Under that broad definition, movies have taken creative liberties with the disorder, tailoring it to fit every genre.

From Russell Crowe’s tortured genius in “A Beautiful Mind” to Jim Carrey’s goofball-turned-tyrant in “Me, Myself and Irene,” popular movies have made it hard to pin down what exactly schizophrenia looks like. Here are the most common ways schizophrenia has been inaccurately portrayed by media.

Exhibiting violent behavior towards themselves and others

In a recent study published in Psychiatric Services, the movies surveyed depicted one-third of schizophrenic characters displaying homicidal behavior and one-fourth committed suicide.

"There is a small increase in violence with people with schizophrenia, but the violence is more subtle and complicated," Dr. Russell Margolis, professor of psychology and neurology and the clinical director of The John Hopkins Schizophrenia Center told ATTN:. "Substance abuse is a major compounding factor, and another fact that's vastly under-appreciated is that people with schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses are very vulnerable. They are much more likely to become victims of violence, scams, and crimes."

Having hallucinations galore

The most common symptom in the films was delusions, followed by auditory and visual hallucinations, according to the report. Since there is no test for schizophrenia, the diagnosis is based on ruling out other illnesses, said Dr. Margolis. "Visual hallucinations are not particularly problematic, but auditory hallucinations are delusions are common," he said. Dr. Margolis also points out that many films don't mention what are known as negative symptoms, which are thoughts, feelings, or behaviors present in healthy people, but are absent or diminished in a person with a mental disorder.

"Negative symptoms such as a lack of interest, a lack of energy, a lack of moving forward, a loss of mental energy — these are more common but don't attract a lot of attention," said Dr. Margolis. "There's a disproportionate emphasis on symptoms that are more apparent, such as hearing voices rather than sitting at home quietly."

Being typically white and male

The review of films found that the majority of schizophrenic characters are white males. According to Dr. Margolis, "There's a slight increase [of schizophrenia] in men over women, but it affects all ethnic groups all around the world." Rates of schizophrenia are generally similar from country to country— about 0.5 to 1 percent of the population.

Triggered by trauma

According to the study, a traumatic life event was the cause of the disorder in one-fourth of the films. "Certain life events isn't going to help them and may make things worse, just as stress is stressful for anyone, but trauma is not the direct cause at all," said Dr. Margolis.

Having supernatural abilities

Nope, plain and simple. "They do not. These are people who are suffering," said Dr. Margolis.

Psychotropic medications as the most common treatment

This is portrayal in media that holds some truth. "It's true — most individuals do better with medication," said Dr. Margolis. "But it works best when supplemented with other forms of therapy, which helps people cope with residual symptoms and move forward in life."

Having a split personality

This misconception has zero basis in reality. "Multiple personality disorder has nothing to do with schizophrenia," said Dr. Margolis. "It's an explanatory artifact, a therapeutic device a construct — not a biological condition.

Never getting better

Many films portray poeple with schizophrenia as withering away in a hospital, forever lost to the world. "This is certainly false — there are a wide range of outcomes. Access to treatment can make or break how well an individual does," said Dr. Margolis. "Someone with full-blown schizophrenia might have more difficulties in life, from economic hardship to relationships, but for a substantial number of people, symptoms might wane over time and some people respond extremely well to medications. People can get better, though it’s variable."

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