On Schizophrenia

Most enrolled college students were born before the huge shift in focus towards mental health, and are experiencing said shift in a pronounced way on campuses across the globe. Many universities now host CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), which offers free access to short-term therapy and support groups, among several other resources. They are also home to multiple student organizations which rally behind mental health and support an end to social stigma. As a generation, I find Millennials to be very open to learning about mental disorders – which affect many of our peers (and perhaps ourselves) – as well as therapy and antidepressants. However, there is still much for us to understand about our own and each other’s mental health.

I recently watched a A Beautiful Mind, which chronicles the life of John Forbes Nash Jr., a Nobel Prize winning mathematician. You may have heard of “Nash equilibrium” – that’s John Nash’s brain child. The movie also highlights Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia. It was the A Beautiful Mind that first inspired me to augment my understanding of the mental disorder – I realized my personal lack of knowledge therein. As a student of the very large University of Michigan, I’ve found that many other individuals also misunderstand or lack an understanding of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia means “splitting of the mind.” It is a severe and chronic brain disorder which affects about 1 percent of people worldwide – this comes out to around 51 million individuals. Symptoms fall into two categories – “positive” and “negative.” “Positive” schizophrenic symptoms “supplement” an individual’s personality, and include delusions and hallucinations. In contrast, “negative” schizophrenic symptoms “diminish” an individual’s personality and include withdrawal, lack of emotion, and overall apathy.

Although the cause of schizophrenia is unknown, there are a few hypotheses regarding it. The first suggests that genetics plays a key role – that schizophrenia runs in families. Like other genetically-related illnesses, schizophrenia appears during or after puberty. The second hypothesis suggests that improper brain chemistry is the root of the illness. In a study at the University of California, San Diego, researchers found higher levels of the catecholamine neurotransmitters in schizophrenic patients. These are dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Dopamine imbalance plays a role in the onset of depression. Epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine both act as stress hormones. An imbalance of these neurotransmitters can lead to anxiety, moodiness, and fatigue, among many other things. The final hypothesis is related to an individual’s environment, suggesting that schizophrenia may be aggravated by stressful situations. Most likely, genetics, chemistry, and environment all play a role in the onset of schizophrenia, working together to produce an enormous, internal storm.

What is life like with schizophrenia, and how do people cope with the disorder? This I cannot tell you from personal experience, but there are plenty of stories across the web begging to inform us. The New York Times published an article on Elyn R. Saks, a very successful professor at the USC Gould School of Law, and an individual who suffers from schizophrenia. According to the article, psychiatrists told Elyn that she would have to live a life of solitude, one which isolated her from the “mentally stable” community. She refused to accept this fate. With psychoanalytic treatment, medication, and a determination to trump delusions and hallucinations with her own mind, Elyn achieved what many doctors believed she could not.

Schizophrenia – often marked by delusions and hallucinations – challenges rationality, which is a deeply embedded concept in the West. I’d argue that rationality is the most powerful factor in the creation of the social categories “mentally stable” and “mentally unstable.” “Mentally stable” folks are considered “normal” in their relationship with rationality, while “mentally unstable” folks exist as the “other,” outside of said norm. For this reason, I’d argue that schizophrenia is perhaps the most stigmatized and one of the most difficult mental disorders to cope with in Western society. Against all odds, many individuals suffering from schizophrenia have triumphed over this illness, like Elyn. By identifying triggers, finding meaningful work, and repeatedly forcing themselves back into reality, they manage to beat their own brains.

Elyn admits, “My mind...is both my worst enemy and my best friend.” It is both the cause of frustration, desperation, and sorrow, as well as the most effective cure for schizophrenia. Lately, it seems that psychiatrists use medication as a crutch treatment. Medication is effective in limiting symptoms of mental illness, but not on its own. And these medications have many adverse side effects, including the dreaded numbness. By using therapy in tandem with medication, treatment can be more efficient and more holistic. But one key ingredient in treatment is missing from the above list- personal coping mechanisms. Individuals who suffer from mental illness, especially one as severe as schizophrenia, would benefit greatly from developing personalized strategies to combat their brains. I agree with Elyn’s suggestion: “[Doctors] should encourage patients to find their own repertory of techniques to manage their symptoms and aim for a quality of life as they define it.” Like John Nash and Elyn Saks, many individuals find the greatest solace by challenging their illnesses with their own minds.

There are many more stories on the web and in university libraries written by and about individuals coping with schizophrenia. Some stories are less optimistic than Elyn’s, but informative nonetheless. The only way that we can truly stamp out mental health stigma is by learning about the disorders that people cope with and finding and growing empathy within ourselves. This empathy is a benefit to those suffering from mental illness, as well as an enormous and beautiful benefit for ourselves.


Images courtesy of: Lauren Ranucci-Weiss and independent.co.uk