Friday, February 13, 2004

Beautiful Minds Part 1: An Introduction to Schizophrenia

I’ve thought about blogging on this subject for some time now, as it is close to my heart for personal reasons. But I’ve been unsure how to approach the topic. I want to inform and uplift, but also I don't want to share too much personal information and sound like "poor me." Anyhoo, I thought I’d dive right in tonight since I’m an X-box widow (Halo, anyone?) on a Friday night.

You may have noticed the links to several mental illness advocacy groups I’ve listed on my sidebar under “Pet Flies.” The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Treatment Advocacy Center both focus on legal issues concerning those afflicted with serious mental illnesses and their families. is a great resource for information on schizophrenia if you don’t know anything about it and would like to know more. One of my goals in life, after I graduate, is to become more involved in these groups so that I can help effect positive change as far as awareness of and public policy regarding mental illness.

One of the reasons why I decided to study biology, particularly neuroscience, is that I wanted to understand the causes behind serious mental illnesses. And I also wanted to educate others on schizophrenia and help work towards a cure or prevention of it. Schizophrenia is a disease that has drastically affected my life. I am the person I am because of my experiences with schizophrenia, and I want nothing more than to help ease the pain of individuals and families that suffer because of it.

My mother, a kind and religious woman, has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for most of her adult life. I was about 6 years old when I noticed her symptoms. Of course, at the time I did not know what was wrong with her. I just knew that something wasn’t right. I was also afraid a lot because she would tell me about scary things that she had seen or somehow knew about. I didn’t know what schizophrenia was until I was in high school and then I read everything I could about it. I currently give lectures on antipsychotics to the physician assistant students at my school and take every opportunity I can to educate others.

Schizophrenia is a biological brain disorder that results in a disconnect between sensory input and the brain’s interpretation of that input. I like to say that in schizophrenia, the brain is “short-circuited.” For instance, the auditory centers of the brain malfunction and cause a person with schizophrenia to hear someone talking to them in their head when no one in their actual environment is speaking to them. There are several types of schizophrenia, but the paranoid type is the most common. Symptoms include delusions of grandeur, auditory or visual hallucinations, feelings of persecution, and disorganized thinking. Schizophrenia affects both sexes equally, although the age of onset is earlier for men, usually late teens or early twenties.

Not much is known about what causes schizophrenia. Although it clearly has a genetic component, it has been weakly linked to genes on almost every chromosome rather than a single gene. Environmental factors also play a key role as shown in studies of identical twins where only 50% of twins have schizophrenia when the other twin is affected. My chances of getting schizophrenia are about 10-15%, but I’d say my chances are even lower since I’m pretty much past the age of onset (over the hill).

Many of you have probably seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” starring Russell Crowe. Some critics panned it as being overly sentimental and unfaithful to the true story of John Nash, thus undeserving of an Oscar. But Oscar or not, this movie was incredibly important to me because finally someone was bringing the skeleton of schizophrenia out of the closet. This is the family secret that no one talks about, that everyone is ashamed about. When most people think of schizophrenia, they think of their local bag lady that mutters to herself while pushing a cart of junk or a psychotic murderer that gets gunned down by the police on the evening news. But “A Beautiful Mind” showed that schizophrenics are human beings: a son, a friend, a colleague, a father, and a spouse. Schizophrenics can be average Joes or brilliant like John Nash.

The point of “A Beautiful Mind” was not so much to document every single event of John Nash’s life, as it was to get inside his head and let you feel what it is like to be schizophrenic and what it’s like to love someone that is schizophrenic. I think the movie succeeded in that respect. The only problem I had with the movie is that it oversimplified his “cure” of his illness. In the movie, he decides to just ignore his delusions and hallucinations. In reality, it wasn’t so easy. He was in and out of treatment centers for years and years until he finally stabilized. He was lucky in that he was able to eventually conquer schizophrenia. Many aren’t so lucky. About a third recover almost completely, a third improve moderately, and a third never recover. There is no cure at this time for schizophrenia and many must take medication to prevent “episodes” of psychosis for the rest of their lives.

Beautiful Minds Part 2: Legal Issues Regarding the Mentally Ill

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