A friend of mine was shocked when I mentioned that there are about 40,000 people in B.C. with schizophrenia.
I explained that while the incidence rate, the number of new cases per year, was about 2 or 3 in 10,000 (World Health Organization) because schizophrenia is a chronic disease, the number of new cases are added to the cumulative number from previous years. For schizophrenia, those numbers add up to a statistic of 1 in 100 people world-wide sharing this neurobiological diagnosis.
In fact, schizophrenia is twice as prevalent as Alzheimer’s, 5 times that of Multiple Sclerosis and a whopping six times more prevalent than Type I Diabetes, yet it remains one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized illnesses of the century.
It has been called, “youth’s greatest disabler” because it tends to strike just as a young person is getting ready for or away at college, preparing for a bright future, when their life starts to unravel. Getting treatment early is important for these young folks and there have been advances in development of newer, gentler medications with fewer side effects than the older anti-psychotics.
The symptoms of schizophrenia that are less widely known than those that affect the senses, like seeing and hearing things that aren’t real (hallucinations), are lack of motivation, memory problems, lack of concentration, blunted emotions, cognitive deficits, etc.
These symptoms can be even more debilitating because they often persist despite treatment. However, sticking with treatment is essential for someone with schizophrenia or any psychotic illness in order to control the hallucinations and delusions (fixed false beliefs) which cause the loss of touch with reality.
Continued research and development of better treatment options is critical to improve prognosis and maybe even to find a cure.
It is likely not surprising to hear that a high percentage of people with untreated schizophrenia lack awareness that they are ill. This lack of insight or ‘anosognosia’ is more commonly associated with stroke or dementia. In schizophrenia lack of insight was written off as denial, and while there are some folks who simply are in denial about having this illness and really, who could blame them, there are many others who have anosognosia.
More days of hospital bed use in Canada (8%) are allocated to people with schizophrenia than to sufferers of any other medical condition (Source: schizophrenia.com). This number is even more astounding when you consider the resistance to treatment that exists because of anosognosia and stigma.
Stigma is a cloud that continues to overshadow this illness and keep it from gaining public interest, unless of course a rare incident occurs where an untreated individual perpetrates an act of violence. Then it gains a lot of negative public attention, which increases stigma, which increases the heaviness of that overshadowing cloud creating a vicious cycle.
The result is that most people with schizophrenia, who by the way are far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else (the suicide rate amongst people with schizophrenia is staggering) are afraid to speak out, to advocate for increased funding for research and development, to even dream about asking for more money to be invested into finding a cure.
On National Schizophrenia Awareness Day, May 24th, you can show your support for the 40,000 fellow British Columbians who live with this brain illness, if not with donations to schizophrenia research or lobbying the government for increased funding, perhaps take some time to learn more about the illness and gain understanding so we can put an end to stigma for the families in our community who are affected by schizophrenia.
Dolly Hall, NW
BC Schizophrenia Society, Terrace, B.C.