homepage logo

Access to treatment, acceptance, elusive to those diagnosed with schizophrenia

By Staff | Nov 15, 2008

By MCKENZIE CASSIDY, mcassidy@breezenewspapers.com

For a person diagnosed with schizophrenia day-to-day life can consist of damaging hallucinations and paranoia that continually challenge their concentration and focus, while simultaneously angering and frustrating them at every turn.

The mental disorder affects close to 1 percent or approximately three million people, in the U.S. Although it effects many Americans, it continues to be misdiagnosed and, unfortunately for those affected, misunderstood by the community.

For most people the image of schizophrenia is a split or multiple personality where patients experience Jekyll and Hyde-like episodes but, according to Elizabeth Givens, director of the Lee County Division of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, it is not.

“It’s misunderstood because people think it means a split personality, but it actually means a split from reality,” said Givens. “The reason for that is because the symptoms are most commonly hallucinations, hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.”

The hallucinations can affect all five senses, she said, but it is often auditory, meaning that patients believe that an external person is talking to them. Their symptoms are not voices inside their head, but an external voice or sound that they can’t ignore.

More severe symptoms include paranoid delusions where a patient believes that co-workers or strangers off the street are plotting against them, following them or that unidentified people are talking to them through the television.

Symptoms are measured as positive and negative, not meaning good or bad, but whether a patient notices excessive or diminishing functions. And it’s not a patient’s choice to live with these symptoms, said Givens.

“This is very real to the person because the way the brain is working, the chemical in the brain isn’t functioning properly,” she said.

Similar to other disorders such as manic depression, autism or schizotypal personality disorder, there is a varying spectrum of symptoms and severity. Schizophrenia typically manifests for a person between the ages of 17 and 24, or at a time when a young adult is gaining their emotional and physical independence.

“Of all the mental health diagnoses schizophrenia is the most disabling and severe,” said Givens.

Dealing with a diagnosis as a 17-year-old is more difficult and antagonizing than for an adult in their mid-20s because the teenager hasn’t had the life experience to be able to discern if their reality is a hallucination. In some cases young children have even been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but this is not as common.

“They have things to refer back to as they begin to recover,” said Givens. “A teenager is starting at a disadvantage because they may not have worked or gone to school. All the life skills get taken away from them early.”

Galiz Research, a neurological research company in Miami, is currently holding a clinical study for schizophrenia in South Florida led by Dr. Jose Gamez. The study will determine the effectiveness of a new medication to improve concentration and memory when taken with a patient’s regular treatment.

Participants in the study (www.cognitivestudy.com) will be given the investigational medication and evaluated using MATRICS or Measurement and Treatment Research to Improve Cognition in Schizophrenia.

The cause of schizophrenia is unknown although researchers state that it develops not only from genetic factors but also environmental influences. Givens said that it shows a tendency of running in families, but environmental factors such as trauma, stress, drug use and even prenatal care can contribute to its manifestation.

Two researchers from the Simon Fraser University in Canada and the London School of Economics recently proposed a theory that mental disorders like autism and schizophrenia develop after a face-off between a father’s and mother’s genetic codes. They stated that if the child leans towards the father’s genetics they are more likely to develop autism while if the mother’s side wins out they’re more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Although research continues on these disorders, the only relief for patients with schizophrenia is continual access to treatment, having a good support system and being accepted by the community. But Givens said there is a roadblock for some patients getting access in Lee County.

“We don’t have that in Lee County, the access to treatment is very difficult and people aren’t able to get access to all the things they need,” she said.