I recall an amusing incident which occurred in Massachusetts, in the 1980s. A group of women were at my Brookline apartment doing a Bible study very late one winter evening when I suggested we get some coffee. Chandra (not her real name), a doctor at the Boston’s Veterans’ Affairs Hospital who had the longest working days I’d ever heard of, was the first to accept, and understandably so, because she was almost always sleep-deprived.
She went around the room enthusiastically offering to make tea or coffee for the other six of us. We all declined and Chandra happily chirped, “Oh, okay, no problem, two cups then. One for Chandra and one for me.” The conversation was suspended as we tried to ascertain if Chandra recognised what we did. She didn’t and it was the prelude to over ten minutes of boisterous laughter.
That week we bought her a lapel pin, which she obligingly wore. It said: “I’m schizophrenic and so am I.” Many people exhibiting peculiar behaviour—not necessarily humorous either—are labelled schizoid. I’m guilty of the flippant habit over the (uninformed) years, even after having been categorised early schizophrenic in my initial diagnosis of mental illness.
The term schizophrenia comes from two Greek words meaning “split mind.” It’s a brutal and disabling brain disorder (or a group of psychotic disorders) marked by severely impaired thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Schizoids often are eccentric and appear odd.
People with the disorder may “hear voices,” and may believe other people are reading their minds and controlling their thoughts. A conviction that someone is plotting to harm them is a common symptom that terrifies people with the illness, making them withdrawn or agitated.
Schizophrenics may not make sense when they talk. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking. (www.nimh.nih.gov
It’s a disorder that has affected people throughout history. But no story is as fascinating as that of John Forbes Nash Jr, as Hollywood took opportunity to portray a heroic story of this mathematical genius and Princeton graduate in Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind.
The New York Times (NYT) in an article titled “From math to madness, and back” on the 2001 blockbuster, gave the movie a scathing review for its inaccuracy in portraying the real life of Nash, saying “the story that elicits these genuine emotions is almost entirely counterfeit.”
The portrayal of the “scripted” life of Nash by Russell Crowe, though, won rave reviews. One appraisal said, “Through Howard’s skilled hand, and via Crowe’s amazingly understated yet incredibly touching performance, Nash’s achievements and flaws are exposed without portraying mental illness in a clichéd cinematic form.” (movie.about.com)
In 1994, Nash, a paranoid schizophrenic, was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his 27-page dissertation in game theory, produced in the late 1940s, which had “revolutionary implications for economics.” In 1994 also, Sylvia Nasar, in her NYT article “Lost years of a Nobel Laureate,” wrote, “On one level, Nash’s story is the tragedy of any person with schizophrenia. Incurable, incapacitating and extremely difficult to treat…Many people with the disease can no longer sort and interpret sensations or reason or feel the full range of emotions. Instead, they suffer from delusions and hear voices.”
But, Nasar says, “In Nash’s case, the tragedy has the added dimensions of his early genius—and of the network of family and friends who valued that genius, wrapping themselves protectively around Nash and providing him with a safe haven while he was ill.”
It is easy to find information on the disease and its debilitating effects, but for me, Nasar’s captures what any mental-health patient needs in order to complete their life with ease when faced with injury to the mind. Nasar speaks of Nash’s former colleagues who tried to get him work; the sister who made heartbreaking choices about his treatment; the divorced wife who stood by him when she no longer was his wife; the economist who argued to the Nobel committee that mental illness shouldn’t be a bar to the prize; and Princeton University’s support.
Schizophrenia usually strikes people in their teens or early 20s, often without warning. People with this illness may become unfeeling but may have enhanced perceptions of sounds, colours, and other features of their environment. Schizophrenia affects about 24 million people worldwide. There are effective pharmacological and psychosocial interventions available; however, the majority of those with chronic schizophrenia do not receive treatment, which contributes to the chronicity; nor do they receive the needed support.