Most people assume that a diagnosis of schizophrenia means you’ll never achieve professional success, find a loving relationship, have a family, or live a normal life. While it’s true that schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder are serious mental illnesses that can have debilitating symptoms, evidence is emerging that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life in spite of schizophrenia symptoms. According to researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), treatment, social support, and coping strategies can help people suffering from schizophrenia thrive in professional and personal life.
Schizophrenia Recovery Rates
Though the common consensus among psychiatric professionals has long been that people with schizophrenia can’t expect to see a lasting recovery, multiple studies have shown that a substantial portion of schizophrenia patients do recover. Schizophrenia is a chronic condition and symptoms may never go away, but it’s possible for patients to experience lasting remission that allows long-term employment, an independent lifestyle and strong social relationships. Recovery means different things to different people — for some, it may indeed imply the reduction or elimination of symptoms, while for others, it means learning to be productive and find happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of belonging in spite of schizophrenia symptoms.
According to information presented at the American Psychological Association’s 118th Annual Convention in San Diego in 2010, studies performed around the world from 1973 to 1995 found that 49 to 84 percent of people with schizophrenia experienced recovery with treatment. Each of these studies followed subjects for decades to determine whether recovery was lasting.
Successful and Schizophrenic
Most psychiatrists still advise patients with schizophrenia not to pursue demanding work or academic goals. Schizophrenia symptoms are generally considered too severe to permit patients to tackle more than the most menial positions. But according to research led by Elyn R. Saks, herself a diagnosed schizophrenia patient and professor of law at the University of Southern California, the opposite is true. According to the successful schizophrenia patients Saks and her colleagues have studied, a demanding academic and professional life doesn’t exacerbate symptoms, but actually helps keep them in check.
Saks and colleagues Alison Hamilton, Stephen Marder, and Amy Cohen have surveyed a group of 20 subjects diagnosed with schizophrenia in the Los Angeles area. Each of these subjects was considered high-functioning — they had all finished high school, and some even finished a master’s or doctoral degree, though most were still working toward an undergraduate degree at the time of the study. Their professions included lawyer, doctor, chief executive of a nonprofit group, and psychologist. Though most of the participants in this study are unmarried and child-free, Saks and her colleagues intend to perform another study examining the coping mechanisms of people diagnosed with schizophrenia who have also been successful in marriage and family life.
Saks and her colleagues were able to learn a lot from the study participants about what helps them succeed in spite of their schizophrenia symptoms. All of the study participants credited psychiatric therapy and good self-care as a fundamental part of their success. High-functioning schizophrenia patients seek psychiatric treatment and maintain strong ties with a therapist, sometimes talking to a therapist multiple times a day over the phone or by text. They also take prescription medication for their condition and may increase their dosages in order to cope with symptom flare-ups.
People who manage to be successful in spite of a schizophrenia diagnosis learn to identify their own symptom triggers. Triggers can include loud music, alcohol and drugs, or sensory over-stimulation. Some strategies the high-functioning schizophrenia patients used to cope with triggers included:
Scheduling alone time when necessary
Owning a pet
Challenging delusions and hallucinations with cognitive behavioral techniques
Listening to music
Eating a healthy diet
Practicing a religion
Some patients said they found it helpful to keep their living environment calm and simple, with no decorations, no TV or radio, and only soothing music. Others preferred to go the opposite route, filling their environments with loud music and other sensory inputs as a means of distraction from mental symptoms.
One of the most common coping mechanisms these high-functioning schizophrenia patients mentioned was work. A number of the study participants threw themselves into their careers as a means of distraction and in order to find a sense of belonging and self-worth. Some even work on weekends in order to keep their minds off of their mental illness symptoms. Friends, family, and other coping mechanisms are important, most of the study participants said, but were not as valuable as using their personal strengths and skills to pursue meaningful work.
Treatment Must Play to Patients’ Strengths
Saks believes that the findings of this study underscore the need for schizophrenia treatment to go beyond mitigating symptoms, and help patients discover their own personal strengths so they can develop meaningful relationships and careers. For a patient with a natural scholastic aptitude, a low-key job answering phones or working in retail may turn out to be more stressful than pursuing an advanced degree. Such a position doesn’t offer the patient the flexibility he or she needs to manage his or her condition well.
A diagnosis of schizophrenia has long been believed to presage a lifetime of personal and professional struggle, but new research is showing that’s not necessarily true. Researchers at USC and UCLA have discovered that it’s possible for people diagnosed with schizophrenia to manage their symptoms and enjoy professional and personal success. The key is to give patients the medical support they need and the flexibility to control their schedules and environments.