For Steve Colori, the labels that accompany his schizoaffective disorder don’t just bring struggle and pain. They make him a new man.
Schizophrenia is a word that characterizes half of my diagnosis and bipolar is the other. For the longest time after hearing these words, I was afraid to attribute them to myself. The connotations surrounding these words are powerful and have been built up from a number of sources including the news, movies, music, and literature. Whenever these ailments are spoken of, and for whatever reason, the discussion isn’t an open-minded exchange of ideas, the person who suffers from schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder is rarely seen in a positive light. There have been several exceptions and the tide is turning but I feel the meaning behind the labels needs to change.
Regardless of how much we learn, there will always be labeling involved within any group of people. Therefore, our interpretation of these labels is all we have control over. I think of my own story and the good I’ve put into the world but, reflecting on what I’ve seen in society the general connotations surrounding schizophrenia are still extremely negative. People seem to have a strange fascination with bipolar disorder but, for that particular reason, there seems to be far more support surrounding it than with schizophrenia. God forbid you have both, which I do.
The word schizophrenia is a label to many people instead of a diagnosis. They tend to categorize people a particular way after hearing this label and they misunderstand the information they’ve been given. Many times folks will call people with schizophrenia “schizophrenic”. Sometimes I experience symptoms of schizophrenia; however, schizophrenic is an adjective which implies that I am in a constant state of schizophrenia and this is an inaccurate way of describing how I am and how anyone else with the illness is. Schizophrenia is a word that describes a particular problem set I deal with periodically. At one point it was far more constant but I’ve reached a point where it is infrequent now.
People use labels for a number of reasons. However, I feel most people are simply uneducated about the meanings of mental illness labels. The human mind tends to jump towards the most salient images. Regarding schizophrenia those images come from news stories with bad outcomes, movies where people with schizophrenia are inaccurately portrayed, and general conversation about the ailment where the stigmas are reinforced. For example, there have been many movies where characters with schizophrenia have been portrayed as violent. Being someone with schizophrenia I understand that I’m someone who has never done anything violent in my entire life. I’ve never harmed or injured any other human beings.
The way to change a label is to provide better information as to what it truly is and that happens through education. With cancer, AIDS, and a number of other ailments there was initially a huge fear – as there still is with schizophrenia – but now, for people who understand the ailments the fear is diminished and may eventually go away altogether. People with cancer and aids are now strongly supported instead of alienated and cast away from society.
Approximately 1% of the population has schizophrenia meaning out of 330 million Americans about 3.3 million are likely to be diagnosed with it. This means you are most likely walking by or interacting with someone who has schizophrenia every single day and you probably aren’t even aware of it. This means that maybe, just possibly, the general portrayal of schizophrenia provided by certain sources may be completely unreliable because these aren’t the people you are walking by or interacting with during your typical day.
Whenever I decide to disclose my diagnosis, I first allow people to get to know me for who I am. We become good friends and once they understand who I am as a person and they gain trust in who I am then I disclose my illness. The usual response is that they had no idea; many times they’re in disbelief. They simply can’t connect the person I am to the perception of schizophrenia they have had in their minds. The good thing is they tend to just say that its fine and they’re still my friend and everything is going to be exactly the same.
This method has worked for me because I’m educating them on what it’s like to be around someone with schizophrenia first. Then they get the diagnosis and they can only associate it with the several months’ knowledge they have of me instead of the snippets of misinformation they’ve gained from miscellaneous sources. I feel this is a good way for us to re-educate our society on who people with mental illness truly are. We are not who the labels say we are.
Photo Credit: Orange Steeler/Flickr