Being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia is a hard pill to swallow. I know firsthand how scary it is to be told that you have this disease. I was angry and mortified when the ward psychiatrist diagnosed me, but due to my symptoms, I didn’t believe that anything was wrong. I had no clue what schizophrenia was or what it meant to be diagnosed with this disorder. It didn’t help that I was not given any information or comfort during this interaction and the psychiatrist led me to believe that my prognosis would be quite grim.
I was diagnosed in 2004, and at the time, the concept of mental health recovery wasn’t discussed as often as it is today. Since that interaction in the psychiatric ward, I’ve been fortunate to build a support network that centered on educating and assisting me through my recovery process. I have 19 years of mental health recovery and experiences that I can share with someone just diagnosed with schizophrenia.
One of the things that I would ask a peer who has been newly diagnosed is how they feel about being told they have this mental health disorder. This would give them the opportunity to honestly process their feelings about the diagnosis. I would also ask them what they knew about schizophrenia and assure them that they aren’t alone. I would explain that while they are diagnosed with schizophrenia, that does not mean they are crazy or flawed.
Knowledge is power, so I would educate them about this diagnosis. Having this disease is like having any other illness – like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer – only this illness affects the brain. While they do not know the specific cause of schizophrenia, research suggests there are several possible causes, like your genes, environment, and brain chemistry. This is a biological brain disorder where the neurotransmitters, dopamine, and glutamate are not functioning properly, and that is why they’re being prescribed medication to manage their symptoms.
I would explain that schizophrenia is a mental health condition that will interfere with their ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. I would also explain that they may have a wide variety of symptoms that will affect their perception of reality, like delusions and hallucinations. These delusions may lead them to believe that they have special powers or that they’re being sent messages in what they read or through the radio and television. They may hear, see, smell, taste, or feel things that others don’t experience, and these are called hallucinations.
They may also have negative symptoms that give them a lack of motivation, become emotionally flat, lose interest in life and things that brought them joy, and be unable to follow through with their activities or sustain relationships. Cognitive issues may arise, making it difficult for them to focus, remember things, organize their thoughts, or finish tasks. They most likely will have a lack of insight with a symptom called anosognosia, where they are unaware of their own mental health condition or they are not able to perceive their condition accurately.
I would encourage them to advocate for themselves and to seek out support from a psychiatrist and therapist that they have a rapport with. I would reassure them that I’ll walk beside them throughout their journey. Giving them hope of mental health recovery is key at this time. It’s best to be honest that while recovery is possible, it’s not an overnight process. They will have to work toward their mental health recovery and know that recovery looks different for each individual living with schizophrenia.
While being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia can catch a person off guard and frighten them, it doesn’t have to be that way for long. Due to anti-stigma campaigns and psychoeducation about schizophrenia, a person who is newly diagnosed with the disorder can find information about the disease from organizations like NAMI, Mental Health America, and the Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance. Just because we live with a serious mental illness doesn’t mean we have to live in fear and shame.
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