Asylums, prisons and backwater towns all make great television. They show case the odd, the inhuman and the supernatural, compelling viewers to tune in week after week. Aside from plot twists and dark humour, usually one character captivates the audience and quickly gains status as the fan favourite. It is rarely the protagonist but rather the head case.
From Crazy Eyes in Orange is the New Black to Haywire from Prison Break, the lovable misfits, their mistreatment and incredible resilience inadvertently romanticize mental illness and perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Schizophrenia, a serious mental illness, is usually the disability of choice.
Portrayals of schizophrenia in pop culture is a caricature at best. Rather than an honest representation of how the mental illness affects the way one understands and interacts with the world, it is presented as a constant and irreversible state of psychosis. Neither the core essence nor subtle nuances of schizophrenia are translated onto screen. Schizophrenic episodes are exaggerated to be violent and irrepressible when in reality the common symptoms range greatly and entail problems communicating, concentrating or thinking clearly, numbness, restlessness, changes in motivation and the ability to complete daily tasks. While people with schizophrenia also experience hallucinations and delusions, it is not nearly as dramatic and extravagant as pop culture would like the public to believe.
Perhaps the most devastating misconception perpetuated through pop culture is the notion that people with schizophrenia have no place in normal society – if it is not the hallmark of old age and senility, it is the caged insane. In reality, schizophrenia can happen to anyone. According to the Centre for Excellence in Community Mental Health, “About 1 of every 100 people develops schizophrenia; 1 of every 50 develops some other psychotic illness.” Chances are that most people have already met, if not interacted with, a person with schizophrenia. Not exactly as memorable or traumatizing as expected to say the least.
While characters like Crazy Eyes and Haywire are distinctly hostile and aggressive with little warning or triggers, “for about half the people diagnosed with schizophrenia, their symptoms develop gradually, over the course of months or years.” In fact, according to the Textbook of Schizophrenia, the prodrome period – a period of time during which the person’s behaviours are markedly different prior to developing episodes of full psychosis – can last on average from 2 to 5 years. The timeline is significantly slower and steadier than the sudden downward spirals of quirky, unstable antagonists. What’s more? Such severe schizophrenic episodes do not come about instantaneously through provocation, but perceived stress or stimulus such as job loss, death of a loved one or changes in a relationship. Additionally, with the right medication, treatment and crisis planning, triggers are easily identified and their impact considerably reduced.
Truly, the nature of schizophrenia is complex and highly variable. This, coupled with overtly sensationalized misrepresentation of the mental illness in pop culture, is the reason that many people with schizophrenia choose not to disclose their mental illness. Enormous social stigma, misinformed judgement or discrimination are common for those living with schizophrenia. Ironically, one can observe that the media and misunderstanding affects their daily lives and interactions with the world around them as much as the mental illness itself.
Once recognized as a schizophrenic, no matter the level of severity or frequency of schizophrenic episodes, the individual is commonly perceived as a highly dangerous outcast. The label can have devastating effects on the person’s ability to form close relationship and maintain steady employment as even in moments outside of psychosis, they are regarded as ‘insane’. Indeed, there is no shedding the negative implications of the mental illness for people with schizophrenia despite the impressive positive impacts they make within their respective communities.
In fact, although pop culture would like us to believe that people with schizophrenia tend to live in institutions – be that prison or hospital – the majority live independently. Up to 80 percent of people with schizophrenia live with family and are considered to be functioning, active members of society. Many have even surpassed the low social expectations and became masters in their field such as Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinski and Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash.
People with schizophrenia are regularly overcoming obstacles and struggling against the relentless stigma of mental illness. However, if there is one thing pop culture is right about, it is the lack of institutional support that people with schizophrenia have access to. As a suffer of a non-visible disability, fear of judgement, discrimination and even institutionalization makes it hard to seek help. Therefore, love and support from family and friends can easily make a long-lasting and positive impact for those living with schizophrenia. More often than not, reminding them to take medication, encouraging participation in relaxing activities and helping them apply for disability tax credits is all they really need.
Just as Crazy Eyes and Haywire truly come to life amongst a group accepting of who they are, people with schizophrenia deserve the same tight-knit support network to help them achieve their full potential.