Jeremy Laurance: Why our fear of people with mental illness is all in the mind

Medical life

Funny how, once your antennae are out for something, you see it everywhere. I have been asked to join the Commission on Schizophrenia, established by the mental health charity Rethink, which will be taking evidence in four public hearings before producing a report next summer. And suddenly a slew of items have popped up that concentrate the mind about this most distressing of illnesses.

A survey by Rethink published today shows how poorly understood the illness is. The top myth is that old canard of a split personality – more than half of respondents believed it accurately describes people with schizophrenia.

The most pervasive myth in my experience is that schizophrenia permanently disables sufferers. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, only one in five people diagnosed with the illness is affected for life. Of the rest, one will recover within five years and three will sometimes be well and sometimes not so well, but many will be leading happy and productive lives.

The disease is still little understood but there is an intriguing insight published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that shows meditators seem able to switch off an area of the brain linked with schizophrenia. Scientists found meditators showed decreased activity in areas of the brain linked with "me" thoughts. One of the hallmarks of mental illness is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts.

A pervasive myth about schizophrenia is that it is linked with violence, though the truth is that they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

The media bears a heavy responsibility for this. But so do health and social services. On Friday, a report into the case of Leyton Williams, who in 2009 stabbed two people, killing one, a year after being released from a secure hospital, blamed the incident on a "communication breakdown", which left him unmonitored and untreated. Scores of inquiries into previous killings have used the same phrase. Every time there is a pledge to learn the lessons – it is outrageous that it doesn't happen.

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