One per cent of the US population has “schizophrenia,” a term referring to a “mental illness” in which people interpret reality “abnormally.” I am using quotation marks to signify that these words contain much that is controversial. It is the medical profession and the related pharmaceutical industry that defines people in this way to be better able to control or treat them. In the extreme case, if a person is “harmful to self or others,” as judged by a doctor, they can be involuntarily incarcerated in a mental hospital. Life in mental hospitals has been accurately portrayed in the popular movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Malidoma Some, a shaman and cultural bridge to the west from an African tribe, was shocked when he visited a fellow student who was placed in one. In Some’s tribe, a person showing signs of what we call “mental illness” would be trained to be a healer. The more appropriate term might be “spiritual emergency” and “spiritual emergence”.
My Experience As a Paranoid Schizophrenic
Here is my experience of being a “paranoid schizophrenic;” how I managed to break the cycle of hospitalizations and how I learned what it was like to be stigmatized. In the late ’60’s, I found my Ph.D. program in microbiology to be boring in comparison to the new emerging counterculture. I was involved with alternative schools, radical politics and experimented with psychedelics. Those experiments revealed darker sides of experience with such force that I became aware of realities I was unable to comprehend. When I was interviewed by a psychiatrist, he recommended I sign in to a mental hospital. He was an authority, and I saw no alternatives, so I signed in. It was there I made my decision to drop out of the Ph.D. program. I got out of the hospital a month or two later, but continued to have episodes that brought me back over a period of ten years, until I decided not to go to this extreme ever again.
I stopped taking the medications, did not participate in outreach, got an apprenticeship with an artist (which created a new identity for me) and saw an excellent psychologist who pointed out the origin and cause of my problems. She gave me tools that finally helped me out of that mess. In between those hospitalizations, I applied for about twenty jobs and was unsuccessful in landing one, even though employment was not so scarce in those days. There was no freedom of information act then, and I did not have access to my personal file from the university. Being suspicious, I had the file sent to a friend, pretending that I was applying for a job with him. “Don was a campus goodie-goodie”. “Don was brilliant but remote”. These were the “recommendations” from my professors. I felt that this behavior was immoral. Why didn’t they just tell me that they could not give me a recommendation? My adviser claimed that I could never be a teacher—that I should consider working in laboratories instead. Since “schizophrenia” is so widespread, yet so misunderstood, I am listing what a sufferer might want based on my experiences, and also from a landmark publication, Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia: Why people sometimes hear voices, believe things that others find strange, or appear out of touch with reality …and what can help.
1. They want to be treated like anyone else—as human beings with basic human rights
Freedom, clean air, water and food, and a decent place to live.
2. They do not want to be judged, pitied or given sympathy
They want to be understood, with compassion and empathy.
3. They want to develop a shared understanding of what’s going on and how their behavior affects others involved
4. They want to be treated with respect, kindness and support
They want to be accepted—to be loved and supported, and have their views and opinions heard.
5. They want others to authentically share their own perceptions and experiences of life with them
Use “I” statements instead of projecting. Rather than saying: “You are acting crazy”, say: “I feel that your behavior is inappropriate because . . .”
6. They do not want to be labeled or stigmatized
They want people to realize that “psychotic” experience is continuous with ordinary experience and is part of the human condition, not an “illness.” They do not want to be considered “ill,” but as unique. They do not want to be thought of as “stuck with an affliction for life.” To be crazy in this insane world is the new normal.
7. They want regular communication with others
They want to be able to express how they are feeling. They do not want to be told that their beliefs or perceptions are wrong or imaginary. Instead, they prefer to hear that the other person sees things differently.
8. They want help (sometimes not treatment but guidance) in order to take responsibility for their behaviors and for their lives
They do not want to be told what to do, especially by professionals. They do want to develop a shared understanding and description of their problems and hear suggestions on what might help.
9. They want an advocate on their behalf, if needed, to mediate between them and mental health staff
10. They want help in regaining their independence after a crisis
And they want this help to be at choice and not forced.
11. They want help in remembering the fun things in life
They want a partner to go out with and do ordinary things.
12. They want to be given the opportunity to explain how they understand their experiences and how friends and family might help
13. They do not want to be identified as their problems
They want to be seen as a person who is not totally at fault for having them.
14. They don’t want to be isolated
They want to meet with others with similar experiences in self-help groups and other settings to feel less alone and learn about what can help.
15. They want to take control of their recovery and achieve their hopes and dreams
Since the incidence of “schizophrenia” is so high, many people have friends and relatives who carry this label. But these types of problems know no boundaries. Many famous successful people have suffered, too. The movie, A Beautiful Mind, tells the story of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician, who died recently in a car accident. The football player for the Green Bay Packers, Lionel Drawbridge, also suffered with the “illness.” Musicians known to have it include Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Jim Gordon with the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. And take note of a renowned artist who was second in line to Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, “Princess of Polka Dots”, who’s been living in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo since 1977. She recently was featured in the Tate Gallery. Now that you know how common this affliction is, and how you can be of help when you encounter it, I hope you will act on the ideas and spread the word of what “schizophrenia” really is and what it is not.