Delusions in schizophrenia are commonly approached as empirical false beliefs about everyday reality. Phenomenological accounts, by contrast, have suggested that delusions are more adequately understood as pertaining to a different kind of reality experience. How this alteration of reality experience should be characterised, which dimensions of experiential life are involved, and whether delusional reality might differ from standard reality in various ways is unclear and little is known about how patients with delusions value and relate to these experiential alterations. This study aimed to investigate the nature of delusional reality experience, and its subjective apprehension, in individuals with lived experience of delusions and a schizophrenia-spectrum diagnosis.
In this qualitative phenomenological study, we recruited individuals with lived experience of delusions and a schizophrenia-spectrum diagnosis from two psychiatric-hospital services in Belgium using homogenous sampling. Criteria for participation were having undergone at least one psychotic episode with occurring delusional symptoms, present at least 1 year before participation, on the basis of clinical notes assessed by the attending psychiatrist; a schizophrenia-spectrum diagnosis, ascertained through clinical interview by the attending psychiatrist upon admission; being aged between 18 years and 65 years; and having the capacity to give informed consent. Exclusion criteria included worries concerning capacity to consent and risk of distress caused by participation. We did phenomenologically driven semi-structured interviews with the participants to explore the nature of delusional reality experience and their subjective valuation of these experiences. We used interpretative phenomenological analysis, a qualitative method tailored to the in-depth exploration of participants' first-person perspective, to analyse their accounts.
Between March 2, 2020, and Sept 30, 2020, 18 adults (13 men and five women, aged 19–62 years) participated in the interview study. The findings suggest that delusions are often embedded in wide-ranging alterations of basic reality experience, involving quasi-ineffable atmospheric and ontological qualities that undermine participants' sense of the world as unambiguously real, fully present, and shared with others. We also found that delusional reality experience can differ from standard reality in various ways (ie, in a hypo-real and hyper-real form), across multiple dimensions (eg, meaningfulness, necessity and contingency, and detachment and engagement), and that participants are often implicitly or explicitly aware of the distinction between delusional and standard reality. Delusional experience can have an enduring value and meaning that is not fully captured by a strictly medical perspective.
Increased awareness and recognition of the distinctive nature of delusional reality experience, in both clinical and research settings, can improve diagnostic accuracy, explanatory models, and therapeutic support for individuals with delusions whose lived realities are not always evident from an everyday perspective.
For the Dutch translation of the abstract see Supplementary Materials section.