Hallucinations and Schizophrenia
“The schizophrenic mind is not so much split as shattered. I like to say schizophrenia is like a waking nightmare.” Elyn Saks, Associate Dean, Professor and Author who lives with schizophrenia.
“My mother became mentally unwell with schizophrenia when I was in my teens… We couldn’t watch television because she thought the people on TV were sending her messages. She thought there were hidden cameras everywhere, so we had to have the curtains drawn.” Cornelia Parker, English Sculptor and Installation Artist.
Living with schizophrenia is traumatic as it is, but the condition only gets worsened by experiencing or perceiving something that is not present. Around 70% of suffers are believed to experience hallucinations. These are dangerous and even life-threatening, further distorting the line between what is real and unreal.
What are hallucinations?
Defined by psychiatrists as ‘a sense perception that arises in the absence of a stimulus’, hallucinations entail hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, or feeling what is not really present.
There might be several causes of them, some of them being mental illness disorders, brain tumour, terminal illnesses as well as overdose of drugs and alcohol. People with schizophrenia are unfortunately likely to have them too.
Do not get mistaken by the word ‘positive’ as the damage caused is quite the contrary. Positive symptoms are the psychotic phenomenon such as hallucinations and delusions which seem real to the victim of schizophrenia even though they appear strange or bizarre to everybody else.
They can be worsened by stress-inducing incidents and physical illnesses. Mental health treatments in such cases should not be overlooked.
Hearing voices is one of the most common indicators of somebody suffering from schizophrenia. Here, the brain generates voices which one is unable to recognise as coming from their own mind.
These seem very real and often cannot be distinguished. It can sound familiar to someone they know (who is alive or passed away) or it can be a completely unfamiliar one. It can either be a mumbling background voice, whispers in the ear, a very clear one or multiple people talking.
A scientific explanation
Scientists in the Netherlands on studying auditory hallucinations found out that certain parts of the left temporal lobe (which is situated within the ears and processes most of the hearing) were more active during the time the individual was hearing these voices.
The scientists came to the conclusion that there was a discrepancy between the brain signals that came in speech-generating parts of the brain. They were not conveying to auditory parts that the thought was actually generated by the individual itself.
Hence the brain would assume that the voices must be coming from someone else.
What the voices say
The voices can be dangerous where they command instructions or emotionally and mentally abuse the victim. As they are coming from within, they know the most vulnerable points of the person and can shatter their self-esteem.
They may ridicule, criticize or insult the person, shaking his sense of well-being. These auditory hallucinations might even tell the patient to act out life-threatening actions.
For instance, one of the sufferers was told to jump off a building if he wanted them to stop talking. Unfortunately, he did.
With all of this, a person ends up living with depression, finds it very hard to go on with their daily lives and distinguish the real from the unreal.
In the movie, ‘A beautiful mind’, the protagonist sees people who are not really present. In one of the scenes, he has left his baby in running bathtub as he is under the impression that these very people are tending after the baby.
Just like auditory hallucinations, visual ones can prove to be a threat to oneself and others around. As per studies, around 16%–72% of patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder can have visual hallucinations.
What they see
They might end up perceiving things, humans, lights or certain patterns that are not really there. Even dead people or relatives could appear which can cause much distress among the sufferers.
They can even see a person who is distorted as someone else (like a famous person). Shapes can seem contorted too.
When one sees something that isn’t real, it can hinder the overall perception and bring about a lot of confusion. They might face challenges judging distances or fail to realise what lies before them.
While auditory and visual hallucinations are the most common symptoms for those who suffer from schizophrenia, there are some who can even undergo tactile hallucinations.
As per a 2010 study conducted in on 480 schizophrenic patients in the USA, it was found out that tactile hallucinations occurred within 27 percent of the respondents.
What they feel
These are usually unpleasant and disturbing sensations. They might feel that something strange is happening within their body or that they are being touched by some person.
It can either happen when they are alone or in crowded places leading to fights with those around them.
Though uncommon, some patients might have olfactory hallucinations too. This would entail smelling or tasting something that isn’t there.
The hallucinations can once again interfere with the ones well being and distort their perception of things around them.
What do they smell and taste
It can be a pleasant or unpleasant smell such as that of gas, something burning or a strong sulphurous odour. In one of the cases, the sufferer would constantly get a smell of marijuana and report to the police.
They might taste something metallic in their food or drink. This can be particularly dangerous as the victim may feel that he is being poisoned and refuse to eat anything.
Dealing with hallucinations:
Importance of Counselling
As mentioned, a person undergoing schizophrenia can be a threat to themselves or those around them. Many have met with tragic ends.
Since these hallucinations are beyond the patient’s control and dangerous when left untreated, it is extremely imperative that they seek professional help and resort to mental health counselling services.
The sufferer might be given medication too. The good news is with proper counselling, significant improvement has been noticed in the patients.
Along with counselling, there are certain things that can help one deal with the hallucinations momentarily.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs as it will worsen the condition.
- Do not skip on your medication, however tiresome it might be.
- Keep a diary of all the hallucinations to be more aware and differentiate between what is real and unreal.
- Reach out to a trusted friend or a trusted group.
- Keep a mental health helpline ready.
- During a hallucination attack, try focusing your attention on something else like listening to music or reading a book.
- Keep your stress and anxiety levels in check.
Do not ignore the early signs of schizophrenia in yourself or loved ones, seek mental illness health at the earliest.