Schizophrenia is a term that comes with lots of connotations, most of them usually negative. It’s often used in conjunction with other words that incite fear and a sort of repugnance toward the thought of ever being diagnosed as such. Tabloids and sensationalistic media headlines sometimes frame crazed, violent people as “schizo,” and will always be sure to note whenever a murderer or terrorist was either known to be, or is suspected of being schizophrenic.
How has this term come to be associated with violent acts and psychotic behavior? And what does it even mean to suffer from “psychosis” or “schizophrenia”? According to MedLine Plus,
“Psychotic disorders are severe mental disorders that cause abnormal thinking and perceptions. People with psychoses lose touch with reality. Two of the main symptoms are delusions and hallucinations. Delusions are false beliefs, such as thinking that someone is plotting against you or that the TV is sending you secret messages. Hallucinations are false perceptions, such as hearing, seeing, or feeling something that is not there.
Schizophrenia is one type of psychotic disorder. People with bipolar disorder may also have psychotic symptoms. Other problems that can cause psychosis include alcohol and some drugs, brain tumors, brain infections, and stroke.”
On the surface of these definitions there doesn’t seem to be anything intrinsically negative or malevolent about any of these descriptions. If we imagine how it must feel to suffer these conditions, we’d probably conclude that it would be annoying, or perhaps frightening at times, but we all know that many people can and do function even under these circumstances. With the right treatments and support available, those who live with these types of disorders can even move beyond them. But it’s certainly not going to be a one size fits all solution for this multifaceted problem.
If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we’d probably all recognize that psychotic disorders are really quite prevalent, and are largely undiagnosed. I’m sure we’ve all experienced something that would be considered a sort of psychotic episode from time to time, or maybe even live with what a psychiatrist would diagnose as a delusional state of mind or bipolar disorder. So, why is there such a stigma surrounding the terminology related to mental health? Is it just a matter of perception? And who defines what is normal or abnormal anyways? Better yet, what is reality?
Often it seems that classifying a person as insane, mentally ill, or psychotic gives us an excuse for dismissing their ability to be a productive member of society, being that they aren’t a “sane” human being and they’re out of touch with “reality.” In the era of insane asylums, this seems to have been a sort of comforting excuse for locking people up. We can distance ourselves from having to confront our own mental deficiencies by sort of offering a scapegoat for the scapegoat. The mentally ill are villainized, yet somewhat excused for being sick, and their illness is simultaneously demonized and dismissed for having caused it.
But what is the true cause of psychosis, and how can we help one another deal with it? Perhaps the answer lies not in how to treat mental disorders, but rather in how we refer to them. First of all, the way in which we define psychosis, schizophrenia, and many other mental illnesses supposes that there is some baseline of normalcy or accepted interpretation of that which constitutes reality. Certainly, there are some who suffer from severe mental illness, they may see and hear things that are not really there, and could pose a danger to themselves and to others. But for those who experience general feelings of paranoia, anxiety, or even have some delusional thoughts sometimes, it seems that a mental disorder diagnosis is really not appropriate, and may be even more damaging than helpful.
We seem to like classifying and compartmentalizing everything in our society. Traditional gender roles are clearly defined, hierarchical structures are obsessively maintained, and every little imbalance, deficiency, or illness can be diagnosed and treated with some sort of pharmaceutical drug or carefully designed therapy. But the problem is that the human body, and especially our brains, don’t work in such a strictly defined and mechanistically refined manner. Psychosis is partly a response or reaction to some kind of trigger, not just a lack of some chemical that needs to be measured and balanced. Not to mention, the long term effects of pharmaceuticals are often not very appealing, and neither are the consequent adverse reactions and side effects.
However, the study of endocannabinoids may lead us to some promising answers in regard to how we can treat psychiatric disorders more effectively, and hopefully help us do away with some of the stereotypes and social stigmas that are attached. For years it has been presumed that there is a positive association between cannabis use and psychosis, which may very well be true in some cases. Just about everyone who has experimented with smoking weed knows the feeling of anxiety and paranoia that can sometimes accompany it. Now, through the study of endocannabinoids, we have found that the presence of cannabidiol in cannabis is what helps to counteract the powerful emotional response to THC, which can be quite disturbing. These findings may offer some good insights into how mental illness develops and also how it may best be treated.