Psychotherapy for Paranoid Schizophrenia

Often psychotherapy is not considered to be effective with individuals dealing with schizophrenia spectrum disorders. But a cognitive-relational psychotherapy approach helps form a warm, trusting and detached relationship, conveys an understanding and concern for one’s client, and involves the therapist telling that individual their own empathic views about what that individual is dealing with.

Often clinicians assume that psychotherapy does not work well with persons manifesting what are called “thought disorders” – conceived to be irrational, unrealistic and factually inaccurate. Again, clinicians fail to understand, empathically, the circumstances of the psychotic individual. It should be noted that schizophrenics deal with non-normative experience that, in terms of hallucinations, is visceral in nature. This experience entrenches them in delusions based on hallucinations that are highly convincing.

One idea that may help schizophrenics is reflected in this line from a poem I wrote: “May you walk beyond the empty sudden blindness of existence.” To schizophrenics in crisis and even those not in crisis, the future may seem to be extremely uncertain and perhaps treacherous. They may perceive both the mental and the material worlds as incredibly dangerous. And in many ways, they are dangerous, due to the amount of suffering experienced by the paranoid schizophrenic that seems to her to be inflicted on her by these worlds.

No knowledge about knowledge

A non-epistemological stance regarding no knowledge about knowledge may help a schizophrenic replace her delusions. Essentially, the non-epistemological view represents deconstruction of knowledge with an assertion that relies on the fact that all “knowledge” is subjective. While schizophrenics have subjective views regarding their own knowledge, and although this may be communicated to them, they may be able to understand, in a similar sense, that nobody really has any kind of certain knowledge.

In terms of non-epistemology, it may not be possible to live in the world on these terms. Moreover, it may not be possible to tolerate an awareness that anything may happen to us at any time that will catapult us into crisis. The sudden death of a loved one may be an example of this.

Typically, we reside in faith that things will go normally and as planned, and they generally do so. However, the schizophrenic lacks such faith. If the therapist can communicate to the schizophrenic that she should try to get as comfortable as possible with simply “not knowing,” this may help the schizophrenic. There is a basis for “not knowing” that corresponds to everyone’s subjective experiences of the world, and this is reflected in all individuals’ perspectives on the mental and the material worlds. Realistically, it might be more threatening to the schizophrenic to “not know”, as opposed to clasping her delusional beliefs.

In terms of addressing the idea of “not knowing” with the paranoid schizophrenic, the psychotherapist may say the following: “Nobody knows what the future may bring. If you buy a lottery ticket, even if the chances are small, you may win the lottery. If you have sex, even with birth control, you may become a parent. Most events in are life happen by chance. You don’t really know what will happen, even if you fear with certainty that bad things will happen to you. Your condition of schizophrenia really causes you to suffer mostly because of your fear of bad things happening to you, rather than these things actually happening to you. Maybe the thing you should fear in your life is the fear itself. By realizing that you do not know what the future will bring, you may feel safer.”

Context matters?

Another aspect of dealing with schizophrenia is encompassed in the idea, stated by Ralph Ellison in The Invisible Man: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

This statement implies that one needs to know her context in order to know her self and her identity. Often schizophrenics fail to know their contexts. They have confused and distorted ideas about context, based on the fact that their contexts, in their minds as well as in the material world, may reflect delusions and hallucinations. This leads to ambiguity as perceived by the schizophrenic in her mental and material environments as threatening, simply because the schizophrenic may be dealing with non-normative experience.

The clinician may convey to the schizophrenic the idea of not knowing her context by stating: “It’s hard to know what you think of yourself when you don’t really know what you are dealing with in the world. This may be what causes you to be afraid of the world. And this means that you are afraid of both your voices in your mind, (for example), and the people outside in the world.”

The schizophrenic may adhere to her delusional beliefs due to the fact that she, as well as virtually everyone else in the world, thinks that knowing one’s context allows them to be safer than they would be if they did not “know what they know”, even when “knowing what they know” may be delusional. Again, the assertion that the client does not really know what her worlds signify can replace delusional ideas.

One way of communicating this idea to a paranoid schizophrenic would be constituted by saying: “You might think that being a schizophrenic makes people prejudiced towards you, and it may, but also the world we live in makes you into a schizophrenic. Your context in the world – and how the world views you – may be determined by the situation that you are in. You may believe that this is false, that you really know more than other people about the world, but you still do not know what you are in the world, perhaps because believing you are schizophrenic may be unacceptable and may not make sense to you. Nevertheless, you do not know for certain what the world is. That is why it is scary. And you don’t know who and what you really are, because you may believe one thing and others believe differently.”

Treating life as normal

Another idea for dealing with hallucinations and delusions stems from a novel by Carrie Fisher, Postcards from the Edge, which states the idea that: “Perhaps if we treat life as normal, a sense of normalcy will follow.”

This idea is highly salient to dealing with one’s hallucinations and delusions. The schizophrenic may be perhaps traumatized by her experience, but treating life as normal may lead to a gradually acquired feeling of safety.

The idea embedded in this statement from Fisher reflects the advantages of the act of challenging the delusions of a schizophrenic by the schizophrenic. Living one’s life normally in terms of habits and faith in the normative view of reality may allow the schizophrenic to experience the decay of her fears, her paranoia and her delusions. Not obsessing about one’s hallucinations and delusions, by trusting life to proceed normally, combats the punitive experience of schizophrenia and paranoid schizophrenia, in particular.

It should be noted that the ideas contained within this article represent an intellectualized framework of how the clinician or the psychotherapist may approach therapy with a paranoid schizophrenic. They may also be applicable to those who are high functioning, but may be suffering to an extreme extent.

A belief in the scientific bases for the effectiveness of psychiatric medications may be a belief that can be cultivated or even spontaneously adhered to by the schizophrenic. Nevertheless, non-normative experience may lead to non-normative thought, and the deep communication by an empathic therapist who is able to accurately imagine and recapitulate to the schizophrenic what she is dealing with may be in some sense curative.

I have applied these ideas to psychotherapy with paranoid schizophrenics with some success. One client, a paranoid schizophrenic, was struck by the idea that “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” She asked for a restatement of that idea based upon the connection she had established with it. Another schizophrenic stated humorously that he wanted to write a book entitled, The Fallacy of Truth.” He was able to understand a non-epistemological stance. Lastly, one client tried diligently to treat her life as normal and routine even though she was hyper-vigilant and paranoid. The trauma that she experienced precluded her from entirely benefiting from this perspective, but she became extremely high functioning.

Overall, these ideas for psychotherapy, from a cognitive relational perspective, may be of some help to some people, especially paranoid schizophrenics. However, it should be noted that the different types of schizophrenia may correspond with different interventions and treatment.

Image via Diez Artwork / Shutterstock.

Ann Reitan, PsyD

Ann Reitan, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and well published essayist of fiction and creative nonfiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from University of Washington, Master of Arts in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and Doctorate of Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University. Her post-doctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, involved personality theory, idiodynamics and creativity in literature. She recently published Illuminating Schizophrenia: Insights into the Uncommon Mind.
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