What is Psychosis and How Can We Support People Through This Misunderstood State?

Psychosis isn’t talked about as often as anxiety and depression, and therefore there is a great deal of misunderstanding and fear around the condition. Media representations of people experiencing an episode of psychosis can be extremely negative and stigmatizing, influencing how we talk about and treat people with psychosis. Even the term “psychotic” is often used as an insult.

When someone is going through psychosis, or what is sometimes called a “psychotic episode”, they are perceiving and understanding reality in a very different way to those around them. People having an episode of psychosis may experience hallucinations (seeing, hearing, even tasting things that others can’t), delusions (which are beliefs that might seem unusual and not what the person normally believes), and disorganized speech and thinking.

Psychosis is not a specific mental health diagnosis but can be part of another diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, major depression, or schizophrenia. People can also experience psychosis by using drugs such as cannabis. Others may experience psychosis as a response to going through something extremely difficult or traumatic. Social factors such as having to endure racism and poverty are also linked to experiencing psychosis. Some people will have more than one episode of psychosis, while for others it’s just a one-time occurrence.

It’s important to understand that people experience psychosis in very different ways. Psychosis may seem like a serious condition, but people can make a full recovery, especially when they are properly supported.

Many celebrated figures have had non-ordinary experiences such as hearing voices, including famous writers Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, artist Vincent van Gogh, and well-known actor David Harewood. You can learn more about the experience of voice hearing HERE.

Ways to Support Someone Through Psychosis

  • Educate Yourself: The first way to acknowledge and work through your own assumptions and stigma around psychosis is to educate yourself. Find information and personal stories about people who have experienced psychosis that challenge some of those assumptions.
  • Acknowledge People’s Feelings and Experiences: When someone is experiencing psychosis, they might have ideas and beliefs that seem very unusual. It’s important to remember that what the person is experiencing is very real to them. Trying to argue with someone about what may or may not be real is usually not an effective strategy and may increase their stress. Try to listen and have compassion and seek additional support when needed.
  • Expect Recovery: There are many effective treatments for psychosis, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), counselling, medication, and international approaches like Open Dialogue and Hearing Voices groups. Many people make a full recovery from psychosis. In fact, there is research to suggest that people who have gone through psychosis and other traumatic events can sometimes experience positive change and growth following the crisis stage, such as a greater sense of purpose and a deeper connection to self and others.
  • Seek Support: While a full recovery is possible, psychosis can be a serious condition and it’s important to seek professional support as soon as possible. Supporting someone with psychosis can be challenging, so remember to seek support for yourself as well if you need it.
  • Show Compassion: When a person has recovered from an episode of psychosis, they might feel embarrassed, confused, or alone. It can take time to process the intense emotions and experiences in psychosis and to sort through what was and wasn’t real. Show compassion and reassure them you are there for them and there is hope for recovery.

    Psychosis is a frequently misunderstood and stigmatized condition, due to negative portrayals in the media and poor education on the topic. People with psychosis can make a full recovery. It can sometimes take up to a year or longer to recover from an episode, so remember to be patient. While a person’s sense of reality might be distorted in psychosis, what they are experiencing is very real to them. Educating yourself, acknowledging people’s feelings and experiences, showing compassion and reassuring them that recovery is possible can be helpful forms of support. Many treatments exist for psychosis, and it’s important to seek support early on. A supportive and understanding community can make all the difference.