Schizophrenia is a chronic mental illness that is considered one of the most severe. Most people believe that a diagnosis of schizophrenia is equivalent to a life sentence of unhappiness. But new research suggests that schizophrenia does not necessarily destroy a person’s chance of happiness and life satisfaction.
Researchers did find that people with schizophrenia are less likely to experience feelings of lasting happiness than those with no mental illness. However, the researchers found that happiness among people with schizophrenia was not linked to how long they’d been sick, their physical health, their level of cognitive function or even the severity of their symptoms. Instead, researchers linked happiness and overall quality of life among schizophrenia patients to other factors, like optimism and resilience.
Happiness Rates Among Patients With Schizophrenia
For the study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego surveyed 72 people between the ages of 23 and 70 who were receiving outpatient treatment for schizophrenia. The control group included 64 people without any mental health diagnosis. The average age of both groups was about 50 years. Among the schizophrenia patients, the average duration of symptoms was 24.4 years, while the average age of onset of symptoms was 25.8 years.
All but nine of the schizophrenia patients involved in the study used a prescription antipsychotic like ziprasidone or risperidone to manage their symptoms. Twenty-four of the schizophrenia patients used more than one medication. The researchers found that even when treated with medication, the schizophrenic patients still experienced mild to moderate symptoms.
The researchers, led by UC San Diego professor of psychiatry, Barton W. Palmer, Ph.D., assessed participants’ happiness levels using several scales including:
The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression scale
The Scale for Assessment of Negative Symptoms
The Scale for Assessment of Positive Symptoms
The Perceived Stress Scale
The Brief Symptom Inventory — Anxiety
The Duke Social Support Index
The Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale
The Life Orientation Test
The Hardy-Gill Resilience Scale
The Personal Mastery Scale
Overall, the schizophrenia patients did show lower levels of happiness than members of the healthy control group. While researchers weren’t surprised to learn that people with schizophrenia are less likely to be happy than those in good mental health, they were surprised to find that 37.5 percent of the schizophrenia patients reported that they feel happy and satisfied with their lives all or most of the time.
A 2012 study performed by Dr. Ofer Agid of the University of Montreal seems to support the results of the UC San Diego study. Dr. Agid’s study compared the happiness levels of 31 adult patients with those of 29 peers without mental illness and found that both groups reported similar levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Only 42 percent of the schizophrenia patients were enrolled in vocational training or gainfully employed, but these factors did not seem to affect the happiness of the patients in Dr. Agid’s study. The schizophrenic patients also reported spending less time doing housework, shopping, commuting, going to work, and preparing food, but still reported normal levels of happiness.
Finding Happiness in Spite of Schizophrenia
Researchers involved in the UC San Diego study found no link between happiness and the severity of schizophrenia symptoms, age of disease onset, state of physical health, or even degree of cognitive function in the schizophrenia patients studied. Instead, those patients who reported high levels of happiness enjoyed the same personal qualities that help mentally healthy people find happiness, like a higher degree of personal mastery, a greater degree of optimism and more emotional resilience, or the ability to adapt to and cope with adversity and stress. The only difference appeared to be that happy schizophrenia patients report more emotional resilience than their mentally healthy counterparts. Just as among the healthy and happy, the mentally unhealthy and happy reported a higher quality of life.
These findings indicate not only that happiness is possible for people diagnosed with schizophrenia, but also that mental health professionals can help these patients achieve happiness. In addition to managing the psychological symptoms of schizophrenia, professionals can help their patients find lasting happiness by teaching them coping skills and taking steps to improve their quality of life. Duration of mental illness, social support, level of educational attainment, age, and cognitive and physical functioning do not seem to influence a schizophrenic person’s level of happiness, the researchers report.
Researchers like Dr. Agid believe that these findings could and should change the way schizophrenia is treated. If the severity of schizophrenia symptoms has no bearing on whether or not a person with this disorder achieves happiness, then maybe simply reducing or eliminating symptoms shouldn’t be the end goal of treatment.
“Also, we should ask ourselves: what happens if we discover that patients with schizophrenia are actually happy with their life? Should we intervene to make their life better according to our standards and values?” Dr. Agid told Medscape Medical News. Dr. Agid’s own research suggests that increasing happiness among schizophrenia patients also helps them function better socially and professionally.
Despite what many believe, schizophrenia and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive. Researchers have discovered that a significant portion of schizophrenia patients report high levels of happiness, in spite of the severity of their symptoms or their overall physical health. These findings could change the way schizophrenia is treated, by helping patients find their own paths to happiness.