What it’s really like to tell people you have schizophrenia

Some people have been hounded out of jobs, or sacked on the spot when their employers found about their illness

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The Independent Online

Imagine losing your job, being rejected by friends, or having your neighbours cross the road when they see you – just because you’d been diagnosed with an illness.

Sadly, these are the experiences of many people who have schizophrenia, one of the most misunderstood and stigmatised illnesses in the UK.

Myths about the condition still persist, like that it makes people violent, or that it means having a split personality. Recent media stories, like The Sun’s misleading cover story about ‘mental patient’ murders, or Asda and Tesco’s mental illness themed Halloween costumes, show how entrenched this stigma still is.

It’s no surprise then many people affected by schizophrenia find it difficult to tell others about their illness. In a new YouGov poll commissioned by my organisation Rethink Mental Illness, more than three quarters of people in Britain said they wouldn’t tell their neighbours if they were diagnosed with schizophrenia. Only 35 percent would tell their boss, and less than a third would be open with work colleagues.

The experiences of David Strange, one of our supporters, demonstrate why people with schizophrenia can be reluctant to reveal their diagnosis.

David is a 39 year old wine and food connoisseur who lives in Winchester. But he was working as a junior fellow at a university when he was first developed paranoid schizophrenia 14 years ago. He started having horrible hallucinations, became extremely paranoid, and ended up being admitted to a secure hospital.

When he felt well enough to return to work, David had no qualms about telling his colleagues where he’d been for the previous three months.

But the reaction of his employers was swift and brutal. David was fired immediately, turfed out of his college accommodation, and barred from his university email and online profile. He was given no explanation whatsoever.

Unfortunately, Rethink's new report published today shows that David’s case is far from unique. Would You Tell? explores people’s experiences of telling others that they have schizophrenia or psychosis, and highlights two main types of stigma that people often face.

The first, as in David’s case, is in the workplace. The report features shocking stories of people being hounded out of jobs, or sacked on the spot, when their employers found about their illness. Their experiences reflect that fact that only eight percent of people in England with schizophrenia are currently in work.

The source of the second type of stigma is perhaps more surprising: mental health professionals. A number of people in the report describe being told by psychiatrists or nurses that they would never work again, or be able to have children – just because of their diagnosis.

Indeed, a recent evaluation of the Time to Change campaign, which we run with Mind, shows that attitudes to mental illness among health professionals haven’t shifted in line those of friends and relatives, which are improving.

This has to change. Schizophrenia shouldn’t feel like a life sentence, and people can recover to live fulfilling lives. In fact, around half of all people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover after one or two episodes.

But when people feel unable to talk openly about their condition because of the stigma that surrounds it, they are much less likely to get the support they need to get better.

That’s why we’ve launched the first ever Schizophrenia Awareness Week (11-17 November). By dedicating a time each year to sharing understanding about the illness, we hope to change the conversation about schizophrenia in workplaces, hospitals and pubs across the country.

We want the public to know about the reality behind the headlines – that people with schizophrenia often get very poor care, but that with the right treatment it is possible to recover and live a fulfilling life.

But more than anything else, we want to break down the ignorance and myths around the condition, so that people with schizophrenia can reach out to others without fear of being shunned or ostracised.

It could be the difference between someone getting the support they need to recover, or having to battle schizophrenia alone. As David Strange says: “There’s nothing for me to be ashamed of – having paranoid schizophrenia doesn’t make me a bad person.”