For people living with mental illness, every day can be a struggle. On October 10, 2014, the world will take a moment to observe World Mental Health Day. This year, the focus is on schizophrenia, shining a light into the darkness of this often misunderstood disorder.

Mental illness can be a very isolating condition. There still exist many myths about mental illness that can cause discrimination and prevent people from seeking treatment. Some people believe that mentally ill people are choosing to be that way, but many factors come into play in mental illness, including genetics, brain chemistry, injury, and life experiences.

Soldiers returning from war and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would hardly choose to re-visit their experiences over and over, but they do as a result of their mental illness. Parents would not choose their depression over their children, and yet it may be incapacitating and beyond their control.

Mental illness is not a choice.

Others think that mental illness shouldn’t concern them because they may not currently be directly impacted, but there are some important statistics that indicate that even if they do not feel the impact in this moment, it’s only a matter of time.

On World Mental Health Day, consider that:

  • Around the world, 20% of children have some type of mental illness
  • Combined with substance use disorders, mental disorders cause 23% of years of life lost
  • 800,000 people commit suicide each year, with 75% of those suicides occurring in low- and middle-income countries

Based only on that handful of statistics, chances are good that mental illness will impact everyone at some point in their life.

Another key myth about mental illness is that it is inevitable, and there is no preventing it.

While some mental illness is a direct result of brain chemistry, many mental illnesses can be prevented or addressed early by providing kids and teens with a supportive, productive environment. Kids who grow up with a network of trusted adults have a better chance of maintaining their mental health as they grow. Additionally, eliminating risk factors such as potential for abuse or trauma contributes greatly to prevention of mental illness. Not every child grows up in a stable family environment, so it is important that our communities rally around our kids.

Now more than ever, it does take a village! 

With regard to a village raising children, a saying that originated in the cultures of Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO notes) the five key barriers to providing appropriate mental health services around the world:

  1. The absence of mental health from the public health agenda and the implications for funding
  2. The current organization of mental health services
  3. Lack of integration within primary care
  4. Inadequate human resources for mental health
  5. Lack of public mental health leadership

These five barriers are especially challenging when discussing schizophrenia. A key indicator for a diagnosis of schizophrenia is the presence of voices, but in different cultures around the world the presence of voices can be seen differently. Shamans and spiritual healers are often identified as hearing voices that are culturally unconnected to schizophrenia. When a diagnosis includes hearing voices, it means that a person is hearing a something in their mind that originates outside of their regular thoughts. People in grief may report hearing their deceased loved one saying their name, and it is similar to this, but it perseverates.

The voices may continue to hold a conversation with the person or just talk as in a monologue, and the person has no control over what the voices say or where the conversation goes. These voices may threaten the person, or they may simply tell them what to do. Voices can occur occasionally or fairly regularly, and some people with schizophrenia report visual images instead of voices, or other sensory stimulations such as odors.

Ninety percent of cases of untreated schizophrenia are in undeveloped countries, and 50% of all cases worldwide go undiagnosed. These statistics are especially troubling because treatment is most effective in the early stages of the disease. Lack of funding and lack of prioritizing mental health care in countries around the world is a difficult barrier to overcome, but there are ways to treat schizophrenia. These include:

  • Early intervention: It is crucial to catch schizophrenia in its early stages when treatment is most effective.
  • Prescription treatments: Anti-psychotic medications are frequently prescribed to be used in conjunction with other treatments, such as therapy.
  • Therapy: Many schizophrenics resist the idea of psychotherapy, which is why it is generally used after a prescriptive treatment is established.
  • Coping skills: Developing coping skills is of paramount importance for both patient and family. Families may be completely at a loss as to how to deal with a schizophrenic patient, yet their support is necessary for successful treatment.

If people suffering from schizophrenia remain undiagnosed, the disease gains chronicity and becomes much more difficult to treat.

Schizophrenia is not a life sentence of mental disarray, though. Some of the world’s leading visionaries in the arts and sciences have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. John Nash, a Nobel prize-winning mathematician was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his story was told in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Russian master of ballet Vaclav Nijinsky and American author Jack Kerouac were both diagnosed schizophrenics. The list of noted schizophrenics is short, though, due to the stigma that remains surrounding the disease.

World Mental Health Day occurs this year towards the end of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which this year is October 5-11 in the U.S. Although a day or a week is hardly enough time to completely erase the shadow that still surrounds mental illness, it is a good first step to letting in a little light.

Visit this site for ways to mark Mental Illness Awareness Week, and take a moment to educate yourself with these important resources. If you or a family member suffers from mental illness, including schizophrenia, take a moment to share your story.

Image by Donna via Flickr


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