What’s wrong with the word “schizophrenia?”

I remember as a kid watching Looney Tunes and encountering this great one with Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. Porky wins Daffy through a radio contest, he arrives in a gift wrapped box.

That porcine schlemiel tries to get rid of him, at which point Daffy resorts to “the old Jekyll and Hyde routine.”

I’m a split personality!…I’m two people in one! A schizt-a schizt-a schizophreniac! When people are nice to me, I’m sweet, gentle and loving….But when some wiseguy starts pushing me around…LOOK OUT!

I didn’t know what the word really meant then, but I knew it was my mother. I don’t remember being told my mother was schizophrenic, it was one of those things from childhood you grew up just knowing. (Uncle So-and-so likes super spicy food, Auntie Whosis fought in the revolution, Geeth always packs a knife, and oh, your mom had schizophrenia.)

We had some good times growing up, but Daffy Duck my mother was not.

I remember a few years later, after my sisters pledged to PBS (KNME Albuquerque!) getting Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers’ “The Power of Myth,” where Campbell observes:

The shaman is the person, male or female, who … has an overwhelming psychological experience that turns him totally inward. It’s a kind of schizophrenic crack-up. The whole unconscious opens up, and the shaman falls into it.

My mother was an incredibly smart, deeply spiritual person, (as I recall and as has been told to me,) but a Shaman she was not.

Granted, Daffy Duck was putting on his “Jekyll and Hyde” routine to give Porky a run for his money. (and it is quite hilarious complete with exploding cigar, dumb waiter, and Marx bros mirror routine). Moreover, Campbell doesn’t completely equate Shamanism with schizophrenia, (though—and I’m not versed enough to accurately say—some people claim that he had some pretty regressive ideas on the subject), I think both point to some of the incredible misconceptions we have as a culture about this illness.

And these are the less negative ones.  Based on popular perception, we have an overwhelming choice of ways to mischaracterize: violent criminal (James Holmes), genius (A Beautiful Mind), buffoon (Daffy Duck), brilliant artist, catatonic zombie.

Recently my sister told me that in the latest DSM, subtypes had been removed for schizophrenia, (“paranoid” “catatonic,” “disorganized,” etc.) As near as I can understand, they weren’t really that helpful anymore in identifying or treating the illness.

A few days after that, my co-producer forwarded me a great article about an idea to rename schizophrenia.

The idea is that the word is too loaded to be useful anymore. After some fascinating history of the name, the authors, a European advocacy group of people who suffer from the illness that they prefer to be called “psychotic susceptibility syndrome” say:

In our view the name “schizophrenia” is out-of-date and out of touch with modern science: partly through medication people with “schizophrenia” can now participate in society much more easily than they could a century ago; furthermore the name “schizo-phrenia” suggests a split personality, which has nothing to do with our potentially psychotic condition.

There is a movement out there to rename the disease. I’m not sure which side of it I really fall on right now, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to really consider the stigma associated with the word itself, and its usefulness.

The term was coined at the beginning of the 20th century, back when women were still diagnosed with “hysteria” and opium was given as cough medicine without prescription. Lobotomies were still performed.

The article concludes, and I wholeheartedly agree:

The problem has become not whether to replace schizophrenia, but what to replace it with. Simple re-labeling will do nothing to address the many scientific and clinical limitations of the categorical approach to diagnosis. Nor is it likely to address the problem of stigma, which arises out of background assumptions about the nature of severe mental illness.

We’ve got a long way to go.