What does schizophrenic mean?

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The term schizophrenic is often used in popular media and ordinary conversation to describe behavior resulting from split or multiple personalities, but as people familiar with the medical disorder can attest, this pop culture interpretation is far from the reality of schizophrenia.

Part of the confusion lies in the origin of the word. The word schizophrenia means “split mind” or “a splitting of the mind,” and comes from the Greek words skhízein (to split) and phrḗn (mind). The German form of the word, schizophrenie, was coined in the early 20th century by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. While the term’s etymological roots have led to sometimes inaccurate portrayals of schizophrenics, the name was chosen as a replacement for an even more misleading term: dementia praecox, meaning premature dementia. Dr. Emile Kraepelin, the person to first identify schizophrenia as a distinct mental illness in 1887, labeled the disease dementia praecox to distinguish this illness, which he found affected young adults, from other forms of dementia that are more common late in life. Bleuler’s term, schizophrenie, was an attempt to be more accurate; the disease is actually not a form of dementia, as it doesn’t necessarily lead to mental deterioration, and occasionally occurs late in life.

Rather than referring to split personalities, which is a real but separate mental illness called dissociative identity disorder, the “split mind” of schizophrenia attempts to describe the split in function that Bleuler saw between personality, thinking, memory, and perception.

While the disease has only been known as schizophrenia for around a century, references to the disorder have appeared in historical records for many more. While it may have gone by different names, it is thought that schizophrenia has been around for much of human history.

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