The word "schizophrenia" brings to mind different ideas depending on the listener and speaker. One of my sisters is a survivor of schizophrenia, so it is of special interest to me. Society treats people like lepers when they bring up their diagnostic and treatment history. It is as if they possessed falsified birth certificates and Muslim ancestry. Such people are typically avoided like the plague. Although I have difficulty relating with a person in the midst of a psychotic break, my experience with a schizophrenic family member keeps me from fearing such individuals.
Unlike juvenile diabetes or a viral infection, there is no single set of symptoms for the variety of conditions that are called schizophrenia. The Rosenhan experiment shows how patients can be diagnosed with the schizophrenic label merely by complaining about auditory hallucinations. Such phenomena are probably more common than the statistics show. People learn to live with hallucinations without ever being labelled psychotic. When an acquaintance mentioned his experience with auditory hallucinations, I remarked that, "They have drugs for that." This prompted a long discussion of his experience with anti-convulsive drugs and with meditation. Both proved effective in curbing the hallucinations, but the latter had no degrading side effects.
Ron Coleman is a man who has experienced auditory hallucinations since early adulthood. He was incarcerated on what we call a 5150 in California. In his autobiographic account he does not mention any violence at the time of his arrest. I once interviewed a man who had been incarcerated after confessing to thoughts of suicide to a crisis counselor. It does not take much to be considered a threat.
During his period of incarceration, Mr. Coleman was administered brain damaging treatments including toxins and ECT. None of it made a dent in his auditory hallucinations. He has since learned to cope with the voices in his head. He has become a peer counselor for others with similar complaints. He serves as an example of why we should not fear psychoses such as schizophrenia. He also serves as an example of the ineffectiveness of treatments as harsh and drastic as ECT in curtailing psychotic symptoms. Others who have survived charlatan practice describe how they were treated better once they denied the hallucinations that they continued to experience. Honesty is not a good policy when dealing with uncaring "professionals." Once an individual learns to live with her condition, she must also learn how to not disturb others by discussing it.
A critic of the Rosenhan experiment, where a group of pseudo-patients complained of non-existent auditory hallucinations, compared it unfavorably to faking a stomach ulcer by spitting up blood. A major difference there is that once symptoms have abated the diagnosis was not reevaluated. In the case of someone spitting up blood, her diagnosis would have changed once it was determined that bleeding did not continue. All of the test subjects in the Rosenhan experiment were prescribed drugs despite the discontinuation of auditory hallucinations.
How do you feel about the quality of care of mental patients in Western culture?
Links: Full text description
of the Rosenhan experiment. Podcast interview
with Ron Coleman. Patrick Bracken's British Medical Journal article
on postpsychiatry with a reference to the Hearing Voices Network. Ron Unger's blog
on recovery from schizophrenia.