The Silent Apartheid
I’ve only met one person who could read, and fluently speak, ancient Greek. A master of a dozen languages, he knew the roots and origins of almost any given word, an arcane talent which, I would wager, most people do not possess.
As an adolescent, I loved the song “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix. His lyrics spoke of love trapped in a maelstrom of thoughts and emotions. I asked my stepmother what the title meant. Her lay explanation was simple and devoid of any judgement: manic-depression was a mental disorder defined by episodes of inconsolable sadness and extreme excitement. The name described the condition.
In 1980 the term manic-depression was changed to bipolar disorder, to more clearly distinguish it from clinical depression. I never once heard a bully shame someone for experiencing manic-depression, but cries of “You’re so bipolar!” continue to assault those suffering from the illness. Perhaps the name change wasn’t for the better, or it might be that you just can’t enlighten a bigot. Then again, there’s no reason not to try.
The psychiatric community is currently proposing to change the name of schizophrenia to something they say will be more palatable to the patient and easier on the clinician. Over four dozen papers have been published supporting this rebrand, citing claims that it would eradicate stigma and discrimination. Co-opting their parlance, I’d call that magical thinking.
The advertising term rebrand suggests that the previous brand has grown stale in the marketplace. An Old English word of Germanic origin, brand originally meant burning. The verb sense – to permanently mark an animal, criminal, or slave with a branding iron – dates from late Middle English, when it defined a trait that caused a person public shame. Branding has further roots in the ancient Greek for the making of said mark, a word that I assume you’re more familiar with, the mark of disgrace: stigma.
A case could be made that rebranding schizophrenia will do more to reinforce the weight of existing stigma against people living with the disorder than it will to reduce it. Lengthy explanations of the proposed new eponym or acronym will invariably end with a response like “we used to call it schizophrenia”, with all the baggage that statement entails.
Purported research into the rebranding gives one pause to consider: might some of those studies be subsidized by industries with vested interests? Considering that Social Security Disability claims for individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are rarely denied, what would the prevailing politico- economic system stand to gain from the change? Would a lessened diagnosis based on new terms and terminology create an uptick in golf club revenues, or increase the number of cardboard boxes masquerading as homes?
Supporters state that the reason for the rebrand lies in the Greek origins of the word schizophrenia. Not in the actual symptoms, mind you, nor the public misconceptions due to media stereotypes, but in the native tongue of an ancient civilization, the very same archaic language that only a linguist could decipher.
Upon receiving my diagnosis, I responded to my own confusion and fears, not to the combination of two ancient Greek words, skhizein and phrēn, meaning “to split” and “mind”. I don’t speak Greek. This is not 469 BC.
Schizophrenia: a “split mind“. From a certain angle, I understand that. In fact, there are times when I feel more fractured than split, like a mirror dropped to the floor. Like Socrates’ dust in the wind.
Among the proposed name changes for schizophrenia is Kraepelin–Bleuler Disease, named after German physician Emile Kraepelin who first classified the illness, and Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler who coined the term schizophrenia in 1908. You can already hear the snide remix of John Hughs’ legendary Ferris Bueller quote bullied-up to “Crap-lin? Blew-ler?” Humiliating. And what’s with the “disease“ tag? A brief internet search will show that schizophrenia is not a disease, but the likely result of a chromosomal mutation, a destination set before birth. The DNA address has been verified. Disorder, please. Not disease. We’ve been marginalized enough.
Another submission ripe for mockery is Youth Onset CONative, COgnitive and Reality Distortion Syndrome, or CONCORD for short. Excused from class or absent from work due to CONCORD? “Shoulda booked a light freighter, Skywalker!“ The crash-and-burn jibes are just waiting in the wings.
It’s clear to me as a mental health consumer that unless changes are also made to legislation, health service provision, and the reeducation of professionals and laypeople alike, the proposed rebranding will be for naught.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines schizophrenia as “a serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others”. There is not one shred of intolerance or stigma in that definition. It is as accurate, simple, and devoid of any judgement as my stepmother’s kitchen table insights into the poetry of Jimi Hendrix.
Changing the name will not undo years of prejudicial thinking. People living with schizophrenia will still feel the sting of the invisible apartheid. Authorities will still profile us as violent criminals, even when statistics prove otherwise. Society will continue to abandon their own over misunderstandings that have everything to do with the symptoms, and nothing to do with the word attached to the diagnosis.
It’s not the name that stigmatizes, it’s the prevailing attitude of a culture too self-absorbed to see the effect perpetuated by its own ignorance disguised as witty repartee and snark.
Call it what you will, for whatever reason suits you best. I had a hard enough time accepting the truth that everything I knew was wrong, but this was my life I was fighting for, that much I understood. I sought treatment on my own. I worked hard. I still do. I’ve made progress and I don’t plan to quit. I’ll proudly stand and be counted. I don’t need to be branded again. My name is Henry Boy Jenkins, and I have a diagnosis of schizophrenia.