On Mental Illness: Common Misconceptions

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday February 15, 2011 - 08:35:00 PM

When someone uses the word, “Schizophrenic,” (applied to a mentally ill person and not used as modern slang to represent a dichotomy) the first association for many people is “split personality.” However, Schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personalities. When a doctor uses the term split personality, it means that the afflicted person’s personality has split off from reality. The personality could be intact, but stuck in an internally generated false world. Input from the five senses gets reinterpreted in bizarre and strange ways. An obvious fact could be ignored, dismissed, or given a completely different interpretation. 

Multiple personality disorder is its own category of mental illness, and it can exist independently from psychosis. It may be brought on by extremely traumatic events during someone’s childhood. Schizophrenia, on the other hand, is more likely to be caused by heredity. 

In some old movies from the mid 1900’s there may be a person who has “gone mad,” and the hero of the movie grabs the person’s shoulders, gives them a good shaking and says, “snap out of it!” 

You don’t just, “snap out of it,” if you are experiencing psychosis, clinical depression, or the mood swings of a bipolar episode. In fact, it can take a very long time and a lot of work, done by family, helping professionals, and the afflicted person, to bring a person back. And even then, that so called “normal” state of being is often fragile at the beginning and must be protected from trauma and stress, as well as nurtured through therapy, relaxation and other beneficial experiences. 

In some cases, recovery to a fairly normal state is relatively fast, perhaps a few weeks, such as when there is not much time spent being acutely ill, and at the same time, if the medication works really well for that person. In 1990, I had been hospitalized for a few weeks with delusions. The staff of the hospital played the movie, “Field of Dreams.” The relaxation of watching that movie helped bring me back to a fairly normal state. 

Some people misguidedly believe that if you get enough exercise, it will cure all of your illnesses. These “natural healing” advocates believe that pharmaceuticals should not be taken, and that you can cure your mental illnesses if you just run ten miles a day and live on a diet of brown rice. 

When I experienced psychotic episodes, I got a ton of exercise as I wandered many miles from one town to the next. What you get is exhaustion on top of the psychosis. If psychotic, you can get as much exercise as you want, and it will not bring back your sane state of mind. Instead, you will become an “in shape” delusional person. 

On the other hand, moderate exercise in combination with conventional treatment may be helpful for depression. It is also true that moderate exercise will help lower stress, for most people. However, exercise as a cure will not work. Many people are under the impression that mental illnesses are caused by something that the parents did wrong when raising their child. The term, “schizophrenogenic” was created by psychologists to describe parents who transmit the disorder to their child through the contact of raising the child. One therapist implied that if the parents lied to their child it was worse for the child than if they openly and honestly hated their child. 

Particularly in the case of a psychotic disorder, this idea is untrue. Most of the studies that have been done indicate that there is a genetic predisposition that largely causes the person to become ill. And while environment may play a role, it doesn’t require that the parents have done something wrong. There are numerous other things in a person’s environment, including how someone is treated by peers, whether someone lives in an urban area versus a rural one, the possibility of accidental head trauma, and problems that may have occurred while that person was still in the womb. Studies have been done with identical twins who have been separated at birth. If one twin develops Schizophrenia, their twin has about a fifty-fifty chance of developing the same illness. 

There are some categories of mental illnesses that are more likely to be caused by abusive upbringings. However, just because someone has a mental illness, you cannot assume that the parents failed.