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Lifting the veil on schizophrenia

(Andreas Reeg / VISUM)

Schizophrenia, the subject of much ignorance and fear, is coming under the spotlight in canton Vaud this week.

The Schizophrenia Days have become an annual event in this part of French-speaking Switzerland, aimed at making the illness less alarming and taking away the stigma.

"Schizophrenia is quite common, affecting one per cent of the population, so all of us have at least one person suffering from it in at least our wider acquaintance," Charles Bonsack of the community psychiatric service of the Vaud teaching hospital told swissinfo.

It is an illness that affects predominantly young people – 80 per cent of cases are young adults aged 18-25.

This year the event is being held under the slogan "Early action for better care".

The community psychiatric service will be drawing attention to its mobile service, which tries to catch the illness early by visiting sufferers in their homes.

"It's important to intervene early. If a person hears voices or suffers from delirium, they tend to cut themselves off; they come into conflict with their family and friends. All kinds of things can happen. They are likely to drop out of society, perhaps abandon their studies or stop working," Bonsack explained.

Unfortunately, although there are warning signs, they are non-specific. The first episode of schizophrenia – hearing voices or having hallucinations – is likely to be preceded by bouts of deep depression, but depression is common among adolescents.

In the absence of a special programme there is often a gap of one or two years from the first time a patient experiences a psychotic episode until they receive the proper treatment.

Bonsack said that although this was regrettable, given the need for speedy intervention, it was understandable, since people tend to be completely thrown by what is happening to them and find it difficult to discuss their experiences with others.

Mobile teams

This is where the mobile teams come in. Often it is the family which calls them in, worried because the sufferer is talking to themselves or perhaps shouting out in the night. The patient may not believe there is a problem: to them, the voices they hear and the persecution they are subjected to are perfectly real.

But the patient may see something else as a problem, such as the fact that they cannot make friends. It is in talking about this that the team can help the sufferer make a link with his or her psychosis and suggest treatment for it, starting by diminishing the stress they feel.

"Once the person has got rid of the symptoms, it's much easier for them to stand back and look more critically at what has happened," Bonsack said.

As for medication, new drugs have been developed which are very effective and much better understood than the older medications which were often given in such large doses that it dulled all the emotions, making some patients unwilling to take them.

Schizophrenia days

During the Schizophrenia Days the public will be invited to look at their prejudices and encouraged to look at the disease and its sufferers differently.

A series of information panels will be put up in several of the main towns in the canton. Young people will be targeted in particular at a "schizo ô night" – a rock concert in a popular venue in Lausanne on Saturday night.

"It'll be a chance to talk about the disease and also to make young people aware that perhaps they have friends suffering from schizophrenia and they mustn't abandon them," Bonsack explained.

A competition is also being launched to create visual backups that will help people "see schizophrenia differently".

Vaud is a leader in Switzerland in holding public events of this kind.

"We were encouraged by the families of schizophrenics. They said it's important to talk about it like this because otherwise it will remain a hidden disease," Bonsack said.

"People often wrongly associate schizophrenia with violence. It's important to think of it as perfectly ordinary, affecting people living alongside us who we don't even know are ill and who have the right to live in the same way as you and me."

swissinfo, Julia Slater

Schizophrenia

A number of factors can make a person susceptible to schizophrenia.

It is partly genetic: people with one schizophrenic parent are ten times more likely to suffer from the disease than those without, but the chance is still 90% that they will not be affected.

Social factors may play a part, including living in an urban environment. A number of stress factors during adolescence may contribute, as may cannabis consumption. There is also a chance factor.

The symptoms of schizophrenia including hearing imaginary voices, people thinking other people are talking about them and making fun of them, and feeling lethargic.

In some cases the illness disappears of its own accord. Only 25 per cent of cases are chronic.

In 50 per cent of cases the sufferers experience schizophrenic episodes, but have periods of remission between them. In 25 per cent of cases they experience only one episode.

In the initial stages it is impossible to predict how it will develop, but the chances of cure are better with early intervention.

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