Almost half of all Americans, the Psychonomic Society tells us, will experience symptoms severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of mental disorder at some period in their life. With mental illness so widely prevalent, the concept of World Mental Health Day certainly hits home. The goals of the day, observed every year on Oct. 10, include mobilizing efforts in support of mental health while raising awareness of the issue of illness. In particular, this year’s theme, as established by the World Health Organization (WHO), is “Living with schizophrenia” and includes a subtext on the effects of stigma and isolation.

Schizophrenia, which affects more than 21 million people worldwide, is described as a “spectrum disorder” (similar to autism) because it spans a range of linked conditions that either have a similar appearance or are thought to be caused by the same underlying condition. The schizophrenia spectrum disorders represent a range of symptom severity, with some patients exhibiting just one or two mild signs of the disease, while other patients demonstrate all symptoms. Typically, the illness begins in late adolescence or early adulthood with abnormalities in one or more of these five areas: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking, abnormal motor behavior (including catatonia), and negative symptoms (including diminished emotional expression and a lack of drive).

While effective treatments for schizophrenia exist and many who are diagnosed go on to lead productive lives, one out of every two people living with schizophrenia does not receive care for their condition. This, then, is the heart of the issue.

Improving Care and Treatment

Studies indicate the general stigma against people with mental illness represents a major barrier to seeking help. In particular, young people have more negative attitudes than older people, while they also commonly feel mental illness is embarrassing. One study found young participants who were able to correctly label a disorder — after seeing a person with either depression or psychosis — were also those who identified appropriate help-seeking and treatment options. While knowledge may be power, it is also compassion and humility. Since one of every two of us will suffer symptoms of mental disorder at some point, it seems treatment delivered quickly and without judgment would be the most painless as well as the most cost-effective way to go.

“People with schizophrenia can recover,” wrote the authors of Living with schizophrenia, a publication from WHO to commemorate the day. For many people, this statement represents a radical revision of past ideas about the mental illness. Though complete recovery represents one extreme for schizophrenics with enduring disability at the opposite extreme, the reality for most affected people will be an existence somewhere in the middle of those two possibilities. That said, long-term studies suggest as many as half of all people suffering from schizophrenia learn to manage their illness and lead their lives within, and not separate from, society.

Someone suffering with this illness, then, may be a co-worker or your neighbor, a face on the bus or another stranger in the crowd. Going forward, WHO encourages those of us who do not suffer from this mental illness to avoid discriminating against those affected while doing what we can to reduce the stigma. Not only is this key to easing the way to proper treatment and possible recovery, it is fundamental to the evolution of medicine.