Sights and sounds of a disease

Editors Note: Names in this story have been changed for confidential reasons

The Academy Award winner for best picture, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, showed viewers what it was like to be schizophrenic using the true life story of mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash.

But what is it really like to live with the mental disorder that affects 1 percent of the world’s population?

“I remember being very nervous and having strong phobias,” said Jennifer Mitchell, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic when she was 23. “I would wake up, and the voices would start.”

Mitchell said the voices she heard would both say they were God and then tell her what to do. If she didn’t listen, they told her bad things would happen.

“It was a battle every day, with every decision,” Mitchell said. “People must have thought I wasn’t doing anything but I was. It just took me longer.”

Mitchell said her first hallucination occurred when she was 3 years old. At the time, she saw an elf sitting on the railing of her bed and the same elf, has re-appeared throughout her life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMIH), the onset of schizophrenia usually happens in the late teens or early 20s. Schizophrenics experience hallucinations, hearing or seeing something that is not present. Hallucinations can also include smelling, tasting or feeling something that isn’t there. Schizophrenics can also have delusions or irrational beliefs. Hallucinations or delusions will just begin one day and the sufferer will believe that they are real.

Schizophrenics will not know the difference between what is real and imaginary until they are in recovery. Multiple factors are involved, including the structure of the brain and genetic factors, as well.

Those listed above, would be what are called positive symptoms of schizophrenia.

“Positive symptoms are when there is a presence of something that shouldn’t be there,” said Tim Boaz, psychologist and associate professor in the department of mental health. “Negative symptoms are the absence of something that should be there.”

According to the Surgeon General’s report on schizophrenia, these negative symptoms include alogia, which is a decrease of speech fluency and productivity. It also involves avolition, or a reduced amount of purposeful behavior.

Schizophrenia is diagnosed using the Fourth Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. After diagnosis, a patient can be medicated with anti-psychotic drugs. According to NIMH, these don’t cure the symptoms but instead reduce the psychotic symptoms and allow the patient to function more effectively and appropriately.

“With effective treatment early on, there’s less disruption and a better chance of leading a successful life,” Boaz said.

Boaz also said with proper treatment, schizophrenics might be able to lead normal lives.

Mitchell said she knows she’s not normal, however, the medicine helps. Even though she no longer suffers from hallucinations, she can’t keep a job.

Sometimes, as in Mitchell’s case, it may be difficult for the family to deal with the changes the patient is experiencing. She said she was on the dean’s list during her senior year of high school and was elected into the student government before her illness became disabling.

“To see the sudden change was hard on everybody,” Mitchell said.

She has almost no contact with her family. However, she says she has a wonderful support group of friends.

“They ask me questions like: Are you taking your medicine? Are you taking too much?” Mitchell said. “They limit me, make sure I don’t take on too much.”

Both Mitchell and Boaz recommend that family members and friends of schizophrenics should educate themselves. It’s also important, Mitchell said, for family and friends to keep the patient in a low-stress environment and keep them away from negative stress because it can depress them.

“Find a good psychiatrist for diagnosis, encourage them to stay in treatment, watch for signs that they’re slipping and let them know you see (them slipping),” Mitchell said.

Contact Louisa Ogleat