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Mental Health Awareness Week: What it's like to be a student with schizophrenia


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The 13th-19th May 2019 is Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, so we wanted to discuss some conditions that are less well known and raise some awareness about them.

To look at how schizophrenia affects young people and students, we have collaborated with Living with Schizophrenia, a UK charity established to bring 'fresh insight' to not only the subjects of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder but the wider community that's affected by the condition, such as relatives and carers. 


Image credit: Ehimetalor Unuabonaon, via Unsplash 

According to NHS UK, schizophrenia physically changes how a person thinks and behaves. People often have episodes of schizophrenia, during which their symptoms are particularly severe, followed by periods where they experience few or no symptoms.

Many people seem to think that schizophrenia is not the sort of condition that will ever happen to them or their family, but the truth is that schizophrenia affects more than 21 million people worldwide. There is no specific type of person prone to schizophrenia, and the exact causes of schizophrenia are unknown. What is known, however, is that it cuts across all racial and social groups, occurs in all the countries and communities of the world, and affects men and women alike. Everyone is at risk.

One of the most famous people to have lived with schizophrenia in modern times was American mathematician Professor John Nash - winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics - whose life-long struggle with delusionsa and hallucinations is depicted in the award-winning movie, A Beautiful Mind, starring Russel Crowe.

For young people and students, schizophrenia is particularly relevant - it's a predominantly 'young condition'. Most often the first symptoms will appear between ages 16 and 25 and in their early stages are often mistaken for the usual emotional turmoil that occurs around that age. 

It is vital that young people are on the lookout and are educated about schizophrenic symptoms: schizophrenia is an intractable condition and early intervention gives a better chance of recovery later on.

"When everything looks normal, but feels really scary. Something doesn’t feel right but I know nothing is wrong." 

Illustration courtesy of Babylon Health, find more illustrations here 

What are the symptoms to look out for?

Schizophrenia can often be a severe condition that will prevent the person in question from engaging in their usual routine for lengthy periods.

Some people think schizophrenia causes a "split personality" or violent behaviour. This is not true. The NHS splits symptoms into two broad categories – positive and negative symptoms.

Positive symptoms include any change in behaviour or thoughts, such as hallucinations or delusions.

Negative symptoms entail thoughts or behaviour that the person used to have before they became ill, but now no longer have such as a withdrawal or lack of function and appearing emotionless and flat.

Sufferers may start to become withdrawn and isolated and end up neglecting their studies or social activities. They may begin to tell their friends about ideas and beliefs that will appear strange – such as believing that people are conspiring against them or that they are getting persecuted or spied on. Others have become very religious or preoccupied with unusual subjects.  These beliefs will be anchored firmly, and their behaviour may start to change and become erratic and difficult to explain. 

Other symptoms can mean the sufferer's body clock is altering so much that they sleep all day and spend hours awake at night. 

If untreated, the illness progresses and these beliefs or delusions may become more exotic and occupy more and more of the sufferer's time and energy.  Behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, and they may start to engage in risky acts - over half of all those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in the UK have a diagnosed drug or alcohol abuse problem running alongside their mental illness.

How is schizophrenia treated?

Schizophrenia is usually treated with an individually tailored combination of therapy and medication, and if it is possible to intervene in the early stages of the first episode, then the prospects for a good recovery are much better.  There is no cure for schizophrenia, but we do have very effective medicines, and the earlier treatment can be started the better.

How to support a friend or relative who is suffering from schizophrenia

Living with Schizophrenia has compiled a list of tips for people caring for someone with the condition:


  1. The most important thing is acceptance. Don’t criticise all the time. Avoid saying: “Why don’t you do this, why don’t you do that? Don’t talk nonsense”.
  2. No matter how crazy expressed symptoms may appear you, they are real enough and are often terrifying to the person experiencing them. Try and understand this rather than isolating the person further.
  3. It is better not to react at all than to over-react. Don’t challenge, tell them off or overload them with information or instructions.
  4. If the person you are helping is struggling with an every-day task, offer to do it for them - things like washing up, clearing up, doing the laundry, preparing basic meals, or dealing with routine paperwork might be a struggle for someone suffering an episode.
  5. Hang in there - love them. Let them know that whatever happens, you will stand by them.

Schizophrenia is one of the most stigmatised mental health disorders amongst students, yet it's not uncommon and can happen to any of us. It's important to raise awareness and educate ourselves in the symptoms of the disorder to give sufferers a better chance of recovery.

If you are concerned you may be developing symptoms of schizophrenia, see your GP as soon as possible. To find out more information about living with schizophrenia, visit Living with Schizophrenia’s webpage.

Lead image courtesy of Babylon Health, find more illustrations here 

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