Serious Mental Illness Blog

Official blog for LIU Post's Clinical Psychology Doctorate SMI Specialty Concentration

Posts tagged Suicide

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After my father’s suicide, I fell into despair. I now know it was PTSDBy Jordan Rivkin, The Guardian
Two years after my father killed himself, everything suddenly fell apart. I had failed to grieve and was plagued by nightmares. Now I understand why I was suffering
In 2005, my father killed himself. A high-profile figure, his suicide adorned the front page of newspapers, a private moment retrofitted for public consumption.
He had always been my hero, larger than life, and I adored him. But when I heard the news, I was struck by my detachment, my inability to cry. We had been exceptionally close, so my seemingly indifferent response to his death both perplexed and perturbed me. Was it stoicism? Courage? Neither made sense. If anything, I had always erred on the side of sentimentality and cowardice.
At his funeral, media scrum in tow, I comforted others. I took only a day or two off work, more as a mark of respect than an opportunity to mourn. And all the while, I marveled at my strength in the face of adversity.
I continued with my life as if nothing had happened. I set about keeping the family business going, and making sure my mum and sister were okay. I even aced my university exams a month or so after his death. I felt invincible, and so it was for just over two years.
Then in late 2007, something irrevocable shifted in me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something wasn’t quite right. I was consumed by acute hypochondria, and saw several doctors in an effort to identify my ailment. I was sure some neurological disorder was the culprit, and even insisted upon a brain MRI, which revealed nothing untoward.
Not long after, everything fell apart. I had no idea why, but my best guess was that either I was going crazy or dying. I quit work. I withdrew from university. And I retreated to bed, gripped by fear. You know that harrowing heroin withdrawal scene from the movie Trainspotting? That was me, writhing around the bed that had become my prison in paroxysms of anxious agony.
This incarceration lasted the better part of six months. Simple tasks like grocery shopping were only made possible thanks to my good friends Valium and Xanax. Socialising was out of the question without liberal amounts of alcohol.
All the while, the world looked different. It didn’t seem as real as it once had, and my head felt lost in a fog, like I wasn’t part of my surroundings. I felt like I was slipping away, and thought of death often during that time. I welcomed danger, and recall riding my bike and wishing a truck would hit me and put an end to my misery.
Sleep was a brief respite, but even then I managed only a few hours before waking with a start and falling down a hole of unrelenting fear and despair. I soon took to falling asleep wishing I wouldn’t wake. I wasn’t actively suicidal, though a lengthy coma would have suited me just fine.
How had I become this spectre of my former self? This question plagued me, and not knowing compounded my anxiety immeasurably.
One day I happened upon a book some concerned friends had given me in the months following my father’s death. It was about complicated grief and living in the wake of suicide. At the time I scoffed at their concern, and abandoned the book to some inconspicuous corner of my bookshelf.
But as I read it, I at once recognised my pain in those pages. Those living in the shadow of suicide are suffering not only from grief, but they are also reacting to a traumatic event. The pain, the fear, the disorientation – these are some of the hallmarks of PTSD.
It seems ludicrous now as I write this, but back then, I hadn’t even an inkling that my suffering might be related to my father’s suicide. I had been fine, and anyway, that was years ago. But post-traumatic stress symptoms can show up months, years or even decades later.
My feelings about my father’s death were complicated. I was relieved he was no longer suffering. I was angry with him for choosing to leave. I was saddened by his absence. But mostly I felt nothing, like an automaton who still tells the story as though it weren’t his own.
I had failed to grieve, or even fully acknowledge the reality that he was gone. It took me over a year to delete his number from my phone. I kept the leftovers of our last dinner together, only a few nights before his death, in the freezer for over five years. I just couldn’t bring myself to part with little reminders of him.
And the dreams. Some would call them nightmares, of course. Even now, several nights a week, he visits me in my sleep, often replaying various macabre scenes. His wanting to die. His asking my permission to die. His death. His lifeless body. But in some way, these dreams bring me comfort. In my dreams, he is still with me.
Along with therapy and antidepressants, understanding my trauma related symptoms was my path out of the darkness. I still struggle, but not like back then. All too often, PTSD is thought of as the product of war or natural disaster, but that is far too narrow a view. Trauma comes in many forms, and many who have lost someone to suicide need to know that they too have suffered a trauma. This is the first, and most important, step towards healing.
For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.Click Here to access original SMI Blog content

After my father’s suicide, I fell into despair. I now know it was PTSD
By Jordan Rivkin, The Guardian

Two years after my father killed himself, everything suddenly fell apart. I had failed to grieve and was plagued by nightmares. Now I understand why I was suffering

In 2005, my father killed himself. A high-profile figure, his suicide adorned the front page of newspapers, a private moment retrofitted for public consumption.

He had always been my hero, larger than life, and I adored him. But when I heard the news, I was struck by my detachment, my inability to cry. We had been exceptionally close, so my seemingly indifferent response to his death both perplexed and perturbed me. Was it stoicism? Courage? Neither made sense. If anything, I had always erred on the side of sentimentality and cowardice.

At his funeral, media scrum in tow, I comforted others. I took only a day or two off work, more as a mark of respect than an opportunity to mourn. And all the while, I marveled at my strength in the face of adversity.

I continued with my life as if nothing had happened. I set about keeping the family business going, and making sure my mum and sister were okay. I even aced my university exams a month or so after his death. I felt invincible, and so it was for just over two years.

Then in late 2007, something irrevocable shifted in me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something wasn’t quite right. I was consumed by acute hypochondria, and saw several doctors in an effort to identify my ailment. I was sure some neurological disorder was the culprit, and even insisted upon a brain MRI, which revealed nothing untoward.

Not long after, everything fell apart. I had no idea why, but my best guess was that either I was going crazy or dying. I quit work. I withdrew from university. And I retreated to bed, gripped by fear. You know that harrowing heroin withdrawal scene from the movie Trainspotting? That was me, writhing around the bed that had become my prison in paroxysms of anxious agony.

This incarceration lasted the better part of six months. Simple tasks like grocery shopping were only made possible thanks to my good friends Valium and Xanax. Socialising was out of the question without liberal amounts of alcohol.

All the while, the world looked different. It didn’t seem as real as it once had, and my head felt lost in a fog, like I wasn’t part of my surroundings. I felt like I was slipping away, and thought of death often during that time. I welcomed danger, and recall riding my bike and wishing a truck would hit me and put an end to my misery.

Sleep was a brief respite, but even then I managed only a few hours before waking with a start and falling down a hole of unrelenting fear and despair. I soon took to falling asleep wishing I wouldn’t wake. I wasn’t actively suicidal, though a lengthy coma would have suited me just fine.

How had I become this spectre of my former self? This question plagued me, and not knowing compounded my anxiety immeasurably.

One day I happened upon a book some concerned friends had given me in the months following my father’s death. It was about complicated grief and living in the wake of suicide. At the time I scoffed at their concern, and abandoned the book to some inconspicuous corner of my bookshelf.

But as I read it, I at once recognised my pain in those pages. Those living in the shadow of suicide are suffering not only from grief, but they are also reacting to a traumatic event. The pain, the fear, the disorientation – these are some of the hallmarks of PTSD.

It seems ludicrous now as I write this, but back then, I hadn’t even an inkling that my suffering might be related to my father’s suicide. I had been fine, and anyway, that was years ago. But post-traumatic stress symptoms can show up months, years or even decades later.

My feelings about my father’s death were complicated. I was relieved he was no longer suffering. I was angry with him for choosing to leave. I was saddened by his absence. But mostly I felt nothing, like an automaton who still tells the story as though it weren’t his own.

I had failed to grieve, or even fully acknowledge the reality that he was gone. It took me over a year to delete his number from my phone. I kept the leftovers of our last dinner together, only a few nights before his death, in the freezer for over five years. I just couldn’t bring myself to part with little reminders of him.

And the dreams. Some would call them nightmares, of course. Even now, several nights a week, he visits me in my sleep, often replaying various macabre scenes. His wanting to die. His asking my permission to die. His death. His lifeless body. But in some way, these dreams bring me comfort. In my dreams, he is still with me.

Along with therapy and antidepressants, understanding my trauma related symptoms was my path out of the darkness. I still struggle, but not like back then. All too often, PTSD is thought of as the product of war or natural disaster, but that is far too narrow a view. Trauma comes in many forms, and many who have lost someone to suicide need to know that they too have suffered a trauma. This is the first, and most important, step towards healing.

For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.
Click Here
 to access original SMI Blog content

Filed under suicide suicidal death grief mourning mourn ptsd post traumatic stress traumatic trauma reaction emotion emotions feeling feelings mind body brain wellness healthy health mental health mental illness diagnosis disorder psychology psychiatry counseling nightmare nightmares

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Selling Prozac as the Life-Enhancing Cure for Mental WoesBy Clyde Haberman, The New York Times
When it came to pharmacological solutions to life’s despairs, Aldous Huxley was ahead of the curve. In Huxley’s 1932 novel about a dystopian future, the Alphas, Betas and others populating his “Brave New World” have at their disposal a drug called soma. A little bit of it chases the blues away: “A gramme” — Huxley was English, remember, spelling included — “is better than a damn.” With a swallow, negative feelings are dispelled.
Prozac, the subject of this week’s video documentary from Retro Report, is hardly soma. But its guiding spirit is not dissimilar: A few milligrams of this drug are preferable to the many damns that lie at the core of some people’s lives. Looking back at Prozac’s introduction by Eli Lilly and Company in 1988, and hopscotching to today, the documentary explores the enormous influence, both chemical and cultural, that Prozac and its brethren have had in treating depression, a concern that gained new resonance with the recent suicide of the comedian Robin Williams.
In the late 1980s and the 90s, Prozac was widely viewed as a miracle pill, a life preserver thrown to those who felt themselves drowning in the high waters of mental anguish. It was the star in a class of new pharmaceuticals known as S.S.R.I.s — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Underlying their use is a belief that depression is caused by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Pump up the levels of this brain chemical and, voilà, the mood lifts. Indeed, millions have embraced Prozac, and swear by it. Depression left them emotionally paralyzed, they say. Now, for the first time in years, they think clearly and can embrace life.
Pharmacological merits aside, the green-and-cream pill was also a marvel of commercial branding, down to its market-tested name. Its chemical name is fluoxetine hydrochloride, not the most felicitous of terms. A company called Interbrand went to work for Eli Lilly and came up with Prozac. “Pro” sounds positive. Professional, too. “Ac”? That could signify action. As for the Z, it suggests a certain strength, perhaps with a faint high-techy quality.
(X is a pharmacological cousin to Z. Both letters are somewhat unusual, worth many points in Scrabble. It is surely not a coincidence that a striking number of modern medications contain either Z or X, or both, in their names, like Luvox, Paxil, Celexa, Effexor, Zantac, Xanax, Zoloft, Lexapro and Zocor, to name but a few. Not surprisingly, confusion can set in. Zantac or Xanax — remind me which one is for heartburn and which for panic disorder?)
Pendulums, by definition, swing, and the one on which Prozac rides is no exception. After the early talk about it as a wonder pill — a rather chic one at that — a backlash developed, perhaps unsurprisingly. Grave questions arose among some psychiatrists about whether the S.S.R.I.s increased chances that some people, notably teenagers, would commit suicide or at least contemplate it. No definite link was confirmed, but that did not end the concern of some prominent skeptics, like a British psychiatrist, Dr. David Healy. He has dismissed the notion of S.S.R.I.s as saviors as “bio-babble.”
If some users deem Prozac lifesaving, others consider it sensory-depriving. A loss of libido is a common side effect. Some writers and artists, while often relieved to be liberated from depression’s tightest grip, also say that Prozac leaves them mentally hazy. In his 2012 book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb offered this: “Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.”
Then, too, S.S.R.I. critics express doubts that these drugs have proved themselves significantly more effective than placebos. Some among them question the very concept that serotonin levels, on their own, cause depression or prevent it. One psychotherapist in that camp is Gary Greenberg, an author of several books on mood disorders. Writing in The New Yorker last year, Dr. Greenberg said that scientists had “concluded that serotonin was only a finger pointing at one’s mood — that the causes of depression and the effects of the drugs were far more complex than the chemical-imbalance theory implied.”
“The ensuing research,” he continued, “has mostly yielded more evidence that the brain, which has more neurons than the Milky Way has stars and is perhaps one of the most complex objects in the universe, is an elusive target for drugs.”
More broadly, this retrospective on Prozac introduces a discussion of whether the medical establishment, and perhaps society in general, has gone too far in turning normal conditions, like sadness, into pathologies. And have we paved a path — shades of soma — toward wanton reliance on drugs to enhance life, not to conquer true illness?
This is what a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Kramer, has called “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” a Botox approach, if you will, to matters of the mind: Why not take Prozac and its S.S.R.I. mates even if you are not clinically depressed but believe that they can boost your confidence, or maybe help you make a stronger pitch at the sales meeting?
A response from others in Dr. Kramer’s field is that we are taking traits that are normal parts of human nature and casting them as diseases simply because remedies now exist. For instance, shyness is now regarded by some as a condition in need of treatment. In its more severe form, it is placed under the heading of social anxiety disorder. Then there are those much-heralded life enhancers, Viagra and its erection-aiding cousins. They are marketed not only to men with sexual dysfunction but also to those whose aging bodies are enduring normal wear and tear.
One area of shyness that the S.S.R.I. class has helped overcome is discussion of depression. Decades ago, Hollywood stars and other celebrities dared not touch the subject. Now they routinely go public with their anguish. Robin Williams was an example.
Of course, there are those in other realms of society for whom the topic remains taboo. Take one man who confesses to his wife that he is on Prozac but cautions her to tell no one. “I’m serious,” he says. “The wrong person finds out about this and I get a steel-jacketed antidepressant right in the back of the head.” This is Tony Soprano talking to his wife, Carmela. An extreme example from a work of fiction? Sure. But in all likelihood many Americans have similar fears about what others might think, and keep depression to themselves.
The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle.
For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.Click Here to access original SMI Blog content

Selling Prozac as the Life-Enhancing Cure for Mental Woes
By Clyde Haberman, The New York Times

When it came to pharmacological solutions to life’s despairs, Aldous Huxley was ahead of the curve. In Huxley’s 1932 novel about a dystopian future, the Alphas, Betas and others populating his “Brave New World” have at their disposal a drug called soma. A little bit of it chases the blues away: “A gramme” — Huxley was English, remember, spelling included — “is better than a damn.” With a swallow, negative feelings are dispelled.

Prozac, the subject of this week’s video documentary from Retro Report, is hardly soma. But its guiding spirit is not dissimilar: A few milligrams of this drug are preferable to the many damns that lie at the core of some people’s lives. Looking back at Prozac’s introduction by Eli Lilly and Company in 1988, and hopscotching to today, the documentary explores the enormous influence, both chemical and cultural, that Prozac and its brethren have had in treating depression, a concern that gained new resonance with the recent suicide of the comedian Robin Williams.

In the late 1980s and the 90s, Prozac was widely viewed as a miracle pill, a life preserver thrown to those who felt themselves drowning in the high waters of mental anguish. It was the star in a class of new pharmaceuticals known as S.S.R.I.s — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Underlying their use is a belief that depression is caused by a shortage of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Pump up the levels of this brain chemical and, voilà, the mood lifts. Indeed, millions have embraced Prozac, and swear by it. Depression left them emotionally paralyzed, they say. Now, for the first time in years, they think clearly and can embrace life.

Pharmacological merits aside, the green-and-cream pill was also a marvel of commercial branding, down to its market-tested name. Its chemical name is fluoxetine hydrochloride, not the most felicitous of terms. A company called Interbrand went to work for Eli Lilly and came up with Prozac. “Pro” sounds positive. Professional, too. “Ac”? That could signify action. As for the Z, it suggests a certain strength, perhaps with a faint high-techy quality.

(X is a pharmacological cousin to Z. Both letters are somewhat unusual, worth many points in Scrabble. It is surely not a coincidence that a striking number of modern medications contain either Z or X, or both, in their names, like Luvox, Paxil, Celexa, Effexor, Zantac, Xanax, Zoloft, Lexapro and Zocor, to name but a few. Not surprisingly, confusion can set in. Zantac or Xanax — remind me which one is for heartburn and which for panic disorder?)

Pendulums, by definition, swing, and the one on which Prozac rides is no exception. After the early talk about it as a wonder pill — a rather chic one at that — a backlash developed, perhaps unsurprisingly. Grave questions arose among some psychiatrists about whether the S.S.R.I.s increased chances that some people, notably teenagers, would commit suicide or at least contemplate it. No definite link was confirmed, but that did not end the concern of some prominent skeptics, like a British psychiatrist, Dr. David Healy. He has dismissed the notion of S.S.R.I.s as saviors as “bio-babble.”

If some users deem Prozac lifesaving, others consider it sensory-depriving. A loss of libido is a common side effect. Some writers and artists, while often relieved to be liberated from depression’s tightest grip, also say that Prozac leaves them mentally hazy. In his 2012 book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb offered this: “Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s ‘spleen,’ Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.”

Then, too, S.S.R.I. critics express doubts that these drugs have proved themselves significantly more effective than placebos. Some among them question the very concept that serotonin levels, on their own, cause depression or prevent it. One psychotherapist in that camp is Gary Greenberg, an author of several books on mood disorders. Writing in The New Yorker last year, Dr. Greenberg said that scientists had “concluded that serotonin was only a finger pointing at one’s mood — that the causes of depression and the effects of the drugs were far more complex than the chemical-imbalance theory implied.”

“The ensuing research,” he continued, “has mostly yielded more evidence that the brain, which has more neurons than the Milky Way has stars and is perhaps one of the most complex objects in the universe, is an elusive target for drugs.”

More broadly, this retrospective on Prozac introduces a discussion of whether the medical establishment, and perhaps society in general, has gone too far in turning normal conditions, like sadness, into pathologies. And have we paved a path — shades of soma — toward wanton reliance on drugs to enhance life, not to conquer true illness?

This is what a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Kramer, has called “cosmetic psychopharmacology,” a Botox approach, if you will, to matters of the mind: Why not take Prozac and its S.S.R.I. mates even if you are not clinically depressed but believe that they can boost your confidence, or maybe help you make a stronger pitch at the sales meeting?

A response from others in Dr. Kramer’s field is that we are taking traits that are normal parts of human nature and casting them as diseases simply because remedies now exist. For instance, shyness is now regarded by some as a condition in need of treatment. In its more severe form, it is placed under the heading of social anxiety disorder. Then there are those much-heralded life enhancers, Viagra and its erection-aiding cousins. They are marketed not only to men with sexual dysfunction but also to those whose aging bodies are enduring normal wear and tear.

One area of shyness that the S.S.R.I. class has helped overcome is discussion of depression. Decades ago, Hollywood stars and other celebrities dared not touch the subject. Now they routinely go public with their anguish. Robin Williams was an example.

Of course, there are those in other realms of society for whom the topic remains taboo. Take one man who confesses to his wife that he is on Prozac but cautions her to tell no one. “I’m serious,” he says. “The wrong person finds out about this and I get a steel-jacketed antidepressant right in the back of the head.” This is Tony Soprano talking to his wife, Carmela. An extreme example from a work of fiction? Sure. But in all likelihood many Americans have similar fears about what others might think, and keep depression to themselves.

The video with this article is part of a documentary series presented by The New York Times. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle.

For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.
Click Here
 to access original SMI Blog content

Filed under prozac ssri drug drugs med meds medication medications suicide suicidal robin williams depression depressed psychology psychiatry counseling chemical xanax celexa mind body brain wellness health healthy effexor zantac zoloft lexapro zocor

72 notes

Suicide Prevention for All: Making the World a Safer Place to Be HumanBy Leah Harris, Mad in America
Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?
– Russell Brand, comedian/actor
Like millions, I am sitting with the fact that one of the funniest people to grace the planet has died by his own hand. Robin Williams’ death has hit people of my generation, Generation X, especially hard. After all, his face flashed often across our childhood screens. Mork and Mindy episodes were a source of solace for me as a little girl, as I bounced around between foster homes and family members’ homes, while my single mother cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, fighting to survive. I could laugh and say “nanu, nanu – shazbot” and “KO” and do the silly hand sign and forget for just a little while about living a life I didn’t ask for.
“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” may become one of Robin Williams’ most famous quotes. I was always struck by how he moved so seamlessly between wacky comedy and the most intense dramas. He was so magnificently able to capture the human experience in all its extremes. He threw all that intensity right into our faces, undeniable, raw, frenetic. He showed us our own naked vulnerability and sparks of madness and gave us permission to laugh in the face of all that is wrong in this world.
In the wake of his death, many people are understandably jumping to identify causes. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Williams’ suicide was caused by depression, it was caused by bipolar disorder, it was caused by the drugs, prescription or otherwise. We just don’t know.
As a suicide attempt survivor myself, I can attest that it’s not that easy to find any single cause for the urge to die. It’s true that along with street drugs, SSRI antidepressants and other psych drugs can certainly increase suicide risk in some people. A decade ago, I was one of many who fought and won to get to the FDA to put a black box warning on SSRIs to warn the public of these very real risks. While a drug, legal or illegal, may give us the impetus we wouldn’t otherwise have had to act on suicidal thoughts, for some of us it’s more complex than that.
Our reasons for wanting to die are as varied as our reasons for wanting to live. That, I believe, is the great mystery of suicide.
But I invite us all not to fear the mystery; not to be struck hopeless by it. We can save each other’s lives; better yet, we can find and share reasons to keep on living. If we have 20 seconds, we can share information about a hotline or a warmline. But if we want to really see this horrific epidemic end, we all have to get more involved.
As someone who has looked into the void and longed for it more than once, I can attest that anyone who reaches out in those darkest of times is truly remarkable. It is, tragically, when I am most distressed and most in need of love and acceptance, that I have the hardest time reaching out. This is not an absolution of personal responsibility, because we all must accept some measure of that; rather a recognition that we shouldn’t put the full onus on a suicidal person to “reach out” and “ask for help.” We need to reach out and help. I have written about the problems with the master narrative of suicide prevention, and how punitive and dehumanizing much of the “help” out there currently is. This blog isn’t about that. I’m talking about help that heals.
My point is that we must change the way we relate to ourselves and one another. In revolutionary ways. We must wake up to the fact that we have been socialized since birth to hide the fullness of who we really are. Robin Williams got to act it all out and the world loved him for it. He expressed the madness, the wildness, that we have been conditioned to hide. We are generally chastised for laughing too hard or crying too loud or being too sensitive. We have been trained to put on a proper face and act like all is well. If for some reason we can’t naturally do that (and most of us can’t), we devise ways to cope with the awful unbearableness of it all. They may be fairly innocuous, like binge watching Orange is the New Black in bed all weekend long. Or we may seek to stop the pain in innumerable ways that we know will kill us in the end — from binge eating to chain smoking to staring down a bottle of whiskey or pills.
If we only realized just how many people walked around carrying heavy burdens that are invisible to the world, and were doing every fucking thing possible to keep from cracking under the weight, we would stop feeling so alone and isolated carrying our own. We could put down our burdens and rest, in the all-encompassing field of our human vulnerability and strength.
“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle,” said theologian Ian MacLaren. I am struck by the imperative need for us all to take up the challenge to be kinder to ourselves and others. There is so much suffering in the world. How often do we ask ourselves, in the midst of responding to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails: how can I relieve suffering? At the very least, how do I not add to it?
No one person can fix this mess we have gotten ourselves into as a species, but we can each be a part of bringing more compassion and acceptance into the world. First, we have to learn to practice it with ourselves. We can be the antidote to the fear and sorrow that exists within us, in other people, and in the world “out there.” Kindness is dismissed as bullshit in a world that values power over others. But as mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us, kindness is a “force.” If unleashed in vast quantities, it could literally reverse the cycle of misery on this planet.
When will we stop walking around in these miraculous, vulnerable human bodies seeing ourselves as separate? What will it take for us to realize our interconnectedness; to act from a deep understanding that suicidal people are not to be feared and judged, but to be embraced and held in the light of understanding and true empathy? Empathy sees that we are all connected, and thus demands well-being for all.
I think of the people who report walking to the bridge and said to themselves, “if one person smiles at me or talks to me, I won’t jump.” Lately I try to go out of my way to smile at people, to talk to people, even if they look at me funny because they aren’t used to random strangers smiling at them or talking to them. Come to think of it, I think talking to strangers is definitely a symptom of some severe mental disorder in the DSM-V.
But seriously, folks. It strikes me that breaking down our collective walls of isolation, of chiseling away our carefully constructed masks, of taking care of ourselves and each other, of judging less and loving more, may be among the most important things we can do with our lives. We can simply value people, not for what they do or what they achieve in the world, but because they are alive on this planet with us, right now, sharing these troubled, turbulent and painfully beautiful times.
In the end, we are stunningly diverse, yet there are basic human needs that we all have in common. The ancient practice of lovingkindness exhorts us to wish for ourselves and all beings to be safe, to be healthy, to be free, to live with ease. How can we create a world where these universal human needs are met? I think this is one of the primary questions we should all be asking ourselves right now, and figuring out the answers together.
I don’t claim that smiling at the person who makes your coffee or talking to a stranger on the metro will save the planet. What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.
Nanu, nanu, Robin Williams. Rest in peace.
For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.Click Here to access original SMI Blog content

Suicide Prevention for All: Making the World a Safer Place to Be Human
By Leah Harris, Mad in America

Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?

– Russell Brand, comedian/actor

Like millions, I am sitting with the fact that one of the funniest people to grace the planet has died by his own hand. Robin Williams’ death has hit people of my generation, Generation X, especially hard. After all, his face flashed often across our childhood screens. Mork and Mindy episodes were a source of solace for me as a little girl, as I bounced around between foster homes and family members’ homes, while my single mother cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, fighting to survive. I could laugh and say “nanu, nanu – shazbot” and “KO” and do the silly hand sign and forget for just a little while about living a life I didn’t ask for.

“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” may become one of Robin Williams’ most famous quotes. I was always struck by how he moved so seamlessly between wacky comedy and the most intense dramas. He was so magnificently able to capture the human experience in all its extremes. He threw all that intensity right into our faces, undeniable, raw, frenetic. He showed us our own naked vulnerability and sparks of madness and gave us permission to laugh in the face of all that is wrong in this world.

In the wake of his death, many people are understandably jumping to identify causes. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Williams’ suicide was caused by depression, it was caused by bipolar disorder, it was caused by the drugs, prescription or otherwise. We just don’t know.

As a suicide attempt survivor myself, I can attest that it’s not that easy to find any single cause for the urge to die. It’s true that along with street drugs, SSRI antidepressants and other psych drugs can certainly increase suicide risk in some people. A decade ago, I was one of many who fought and won to get to the FDA to put a black box warning on SSRIs to warn the public of these very real risks. While a drug, legal or illegal, may give us the impetus we wouldn’t otherwise have had to act on suicidal thoughts, for some of us it’s more complex than that.

Our reasons for wanting to die are as varied as our reasons for wanting to live. That, I believe, is the great mystery of suicide.

But I invite us all not to fear the mystery; not to be struck hopeless by it. We can save each other’s lives; better yet, we can find and share reasons to keep on living. If we have 20 seconds, we can share information about a hotline or a warmline. But if we want to really see this horrific epidemic end, we all have to get more involved.

As someone who has looked into the void and longed for it more than once, I can attest that anyone who reaches out in those darkest of times is truly remarkable. It is, tragically, when I am most distressed and most in need of love and acceptance, that I have the hardest time reaching out. This is not an absolution of personal responsibility, because we all must accept some measure of that; rather a recognition that we shouldn’t put the full onus on a suicidal person to “reach out” and “ask for help.” We need to reach out and help. I have written about the problems with the master narrative of suicide prevention, and how punitive and dehumanizing much of the “help” out there currently is. This blog isn’t about that. I’m talking about help that heals.

My point is that we must change the way we relate to ourselves and one another. In revolutionary ways. We must wake up to the fact that we have been socialized since birth to hide the fullness of who we really are. Robin Williams got to act it all out and the world loved him for it. He expressed the madness, the wildness, that we have been conditioned to hide. We are generally chastised for laughing too hard or crying too loud or being too sensitive. We have been trained to put on a proper face and act like all is well. If for some reason we can’t naturally do that (and most of us can’t), we devise ways to cope with the awful unbearableness of it all. They may be fairly innocuous, like binge watching Orange is the New Black in bed all weekend long. Or we may seek to stop the pain in innumerable ways that we know will kill us in the end — from binge eating to chain smoking to staring down a bottle of whiskey or pills.

If we only realized just how many people walked around carrying heavy burdens that are invisible to the world, and were doing every fucking thing possible to keep from cracking under the weight, we would stop feeling so alone and isolated carrying our own. We could put down our burdens and rest, in the all-encompassing field of our human vulnerability and strength.

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle,” said theologian Ian MacLaren. I am struck by the imperative need for us all to take up the challenge to be kinder to ourselves and others. There is so much suffering in the world. How often do we ask ourselves, in the midst of responding to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails: how can I relieve suffering? At the very least, how do I not add to it?

No one person can fix this mess we have gotten ourselves into as a species, but we can each be a part of bringing more compassion and acceptance into the world. First, we have to learn to practice it with ourselves. We can be the antidote to the fear and sorrow that exists within us, in other people, and in the world “out there.” Kindness is dismissed as bullshit in a world that values power over others. But as mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us, kindness is a “force.” If unleashed in vast quantities, it could literally reverse the cycle of misery on this planet.

When will we stop walking around in these miraculous, vulnerable human bodies seeing ourselves as separate? What will it take for us to realize our interconnectedness; to act from a deep understanding that suicidal people are not to be feared and judged, but to be embraced and held in the light of understanding and true empathy? Empathy sees that we are all connected, and thus demands well-being for all.

I think of the people who report walking to the bridge and said to themselves, “if one person smiles at me or talks to me, I won’t jump.” Lately I try to go out of my way to smile at people, to talk to people, even if they look at me funny because they aren’t used to random strangers smiling at them or talking to them. Come to think of it, I think talking to strangers is definitely a symptom of some severe mental disorder in the DSM-V.

But seriously, folks. It strikes me that breaking down our collective walls of isolation, of chiseling away our carefully constructed masks, of taking care of ourselves and each other, of judging less and loving more, may be among the most important things we can do with our lives. We can simply value people, not for what they do or what they achieve in the world, but because they are alive on this planet with us, right now, sharing these troubled, turbulent and painfully beautiful times.

In the end, we are stunningly diverse, yet there are basic human needs that we all have in common. The ancient practice of lovingkindness exhorts us to wish for ourselves and all beings to be safe, to be healthy, to be free, to live with ease. How can we create a world where these universal human needs are met? I think this is one of the primary questions we should all be asking ourselves right now, and figuring out the answers together.

I don’t claim that smiling at the person who makes your coffee or talking to a stranger on the metro will save the planet. What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.

Nanu, nanu, Robin Williams. Rest in peace.

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To Know Suicide: Depression Can Be Treated, but It Takes CompetenceBy Kay Redfield Jamison, The New York Times Opinion Pages
BALTIMORE — WHEN the American artist Ralph Barton killed himself in 1931 he left behind a suicide note explaining why, in the midst of a seemingly good and full life, he had chosen to die.
“Everyone who has known me and who hears of this,” he wrote, “will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it.”
Most of the explanations, about problems in his life, would be completely wrong, he predicted. “I have had few real difficulties,” he said, and “more than my share of affection and appreciation.” Yet his work had become torture, and he had become, he felt, a cause of unhappiness to others. “I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself,” he wrote. The reason he gave for his suicide was a lifelong “melancholia” worsening into “definite symptoms of manic-depressive insanity.”
Barton was correct about the reactions of others. It is often easier to account for a suicide by external causes like marital or work problems, physical illness, financial stress or trouble with the law than it is to attribute it to mental illness.
Certainly, stress is important and often interacts dangerously with depression. But the most important risk factor for suicide is mental illness, especially depression or bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). When depression is accompanied by alcohol or drug abuse, which it commonly is, the risk of suicide increases perilously.
Suicidal depression involves a kind of pain and hopelessness that is impossible to describe — and I have tried. I teach in psychiatry and have written about my bipolar illness, but words struggle to do justice to it. How can you say what it feels like to go from being someone who loves life to wishing only to die?
Suicidal depression is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things that you most love in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night. There is no hope, no point, no nothing.
The burden you know yourself to be to others is intolerable. So, too, is the agitation from the mania that may simmer within a depression. There is no way out and an endless road ahead. When someone is in this state, suicide can seem a bad choice but the only one.
It has been a long time since I have known suicidal depression. I am one of millions who have been treated for depression and gotten well; I was lucky enough to have a psychiatrist well versed in using lithium and knowledgeable about my illness, and who was also an excellent psychotherapist.
This is not, unfortunately, everyone’s experience. Many different professionals treat depression, including family practitioners, internists and gynecologists, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers. This results in wildly different levels of competence. Many who treat depression are not well trained in the distinction among types of depression. There is no common standard for education about diagnosis.
Distinguishing between bipolar depression and major depressive disorder, for example, can be difficult, and mistakes are common. Misdiagnosis can be lethal. Medications that work well for some forms of depression induce agitation in others. We expect well-informed treatment for cancer or heart disease; it matters no less for depression.
We know, for instance, that lithium greatly decreases the risk of suicide in patients with mood disorders like bipolar illness, yet it is too often a drug of last resort. We know, too, that medication combined with psychotherapy is generally more effective for moderate to severe depression than either treatment alone. Yet many clinicians continue to pitch their tents exclusively in either the psychopharmacology or the psychotherapy camp. And we know that many people who have suicidal depression will respond well to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), yet prejudice against the treatment, rather than science, holds sway in many hospitals and clinical practices.
Severely depressed patients, and their family members when possible, should be involved in discussions about suicide. Depression usually dulls the ability to think and remember, so patients should be given written information about their illness and treatment, and about symptoms of particular concern for suicide risk — like agitation, sleeplessness and impulsiveness. Once a suicidally depressed patient has recovered, it is valuable for the doctor, patient and family members to discuss what was helpful in the treatment and what should be done if the person becomes suicidal again.
People who are depressed are not always easy to be with, or to communicate with — depression, irritability and hopelessness can be contagious — so making plans when a patient is well is best. An advance directive that specifies wishes for future treatment and legal arrangements can be helpful. I have one, which specifies, for instance, that I consent to ECT if my doctor and my husband, who is also a physician, think that is the best course of treatment.
Because I teach and write about depression and bipolar illness, I am often asked what is the most important factor in treating bipolar disorder. My answer is competence. Empathy is important, but competence is essential.
I was fortunate that my psychiatrist had both. It was a long trip back to life after nearly dying from a suicide attempt, but he was with me, indeed ahead of me, every slow step of the way.

Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is the author of “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness” and “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”
For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.Click Here to access original SMI Blog content

To Know Suicide: Depression Can Be Treated, but It Takes Competence
By Kay Redfield Jamison, The New York Times Opinion Pages

BALTIMORE — WHEN the American artist Ralph Barton killed himself in 1931 he left behind a suicide note explaining why, in the midst of a seemingly good and full life, he had chosen to die.

“Everyone who has known me and who hears of this,” he wrote, “will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it.”

Most of the explanations, about problems in his life, would be completely wrong, he predicted. “I have had few real difficulties,” he said, and “more than my share of affection and appreciation.” Yet his work had become torture, and he had become, he felt, a cause of unhappiness to others. “I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself,” he wrote. The reason he gave for his suicide was a lifelong “melancholia” worsening into “definite symptoms of manic-depressive insanity.”

Barton was correct about the reactions of others. It is often easier to account for a suicide by external causes like marital or work problems, physical illness, financial stress or trouble with the law than it is to attribute it to mental illness.

Certainly, stress is important and often interacts dangerously with depression. But the most important risk factor for suicide is mental illness, especially depression or bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). When depression is accompanied by alcohol or drug abuse, which it commonly is, the risk of suicide increases perilously.

Suicidal depression involves a kind of pain and hopelessness that is impossible to describe — and I have tried. I teach in psychiatry and have written about my bipolar illness, but words struggle to do justice to it. How can you say what it feels like to go from being someone who loves life to wishing only to die?

Suicidal depression is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things that you most love in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night. There is no hope, no point, no nothing.

The burden you know yourself to be to others is intolerable. So, too, is the agitation from the mania that may simmer within a depression. There is no way out and an endless road ahead. When someone is in this state, suicide can seem a bad choice but the only one.

It has been a long time since I have known suicidal depression. I am one of millions who have been treated for depression and gotten well; I was lucky enough to have a psychiatrist well versed in using lithium and knowledgeable about my illness, and who was also an excellent psychotherapist.

This is not, unfortunately, everyone’s experience. Many different professionals treat depression, including family practitioners, internists and gynecologists, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers. This results in wildly different levels of competence. Many who treat depression are not well trained in the distinction among types of depression. There is no common standard for education about diagnosis.

Distinguishing between bipolar depression and major depressive disorder, for example, can be difficult, and mistakes are common. Misdiagnosis can be lethal. Medications that work well for some forms of depression induce agitation in others. We expect well-informed treatment for cancer or heart disease; it matters no less for depression.

We know, for instance, that lithium greatly decreases the risk of suicide in patients with mood disorders like bipolar illness, yet it is too often a drug of last resort. We know, too, that medication combined with psychotherapy is generally more effective for moderate to severe depression than either treatment alone. Yet many clinicians continue to pitch their tents exclusively in either the psychopharmacology or the psychotherapy camp. And we know that many people who have suicidal depression will respond well to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), yet prejudice against the treatment, rather than science, holds sway in many hospitals and clinical practices.

Severely depressed patients, and their family members when possible, should be involved in discussions about suicide. Depression usually dulls the ability to think and remember, so patients should be given written information about their illness and treatment, and about symptoms of particular concern for suicide risk — like agitation, sleeplessness and impulsiveness. Once a suicidally depressed patient has recovered, it is valuable for the doctor, patient and family members to discuss what was helpful in the treatment and what should be done if the person becomes suicidal again.

People who are depressed are not always easy to be with, or to communicate with — depression, irritability and hopelessness can be contagious — so making plans when a patient is well is best. An advance directive that specifies wishes for future treatment and legal arrangements can be helpful. I have one, which specifies, for instance, that I consent to ECT if my doctor and my husband, who is also a physician, think that is the best course of treatment.

Because I teach and write about depression and bipolar illness, I am often asked what is the most important factor in treating bipolar disorder. My answer is competence. Empathy is important, but competence is essential.

I was fortunate that my psychiatrist had both. It was a long trip back to life after nearly dying from a suicide attempt, but he was with me, indeed ahead of me, every slow step of the way.

Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is the author of “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness” and “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”

For more mental health resources, Click Here to access the Serious Mental Illness Blog.
Click Here
 to access original SMI Blog content

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Stories as a Window Into SchizophreniaBy Anne Saker, The New York Times
Alice Fischer, at home in Cincinnati, displaying one of her paintings. Ms. Fischer has schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia. She was one of the first narrators to tell her story to the Schizophrenia Oral History Project.
CINCINNATI — The psychologist Lynda Crane found that of the many injuries inflicted by schizophrenia, the greatest could be the pain of being forgotten. Just naming the illness somehow erased the person, something she learned when her 18-year-old son’s doctors said he had schizophrenia. Six years later, he committed suicide.
“It took me a long time to come to terms with it,” Dr. Crane says. “Even I had a hard time understanding it, how this bright man, with a brilliant future, could suffer like this. One thing I learned was that as soon as you mentioned the word, people stopped seeing the person. They just saw the diagnosis and a collection of symptoms. Doug, my son, was forgotten.”
For years Dr. Crane, a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in the western hills of Cincinnati, sought a way to enlighten her students and others about the ordinary people who live withschizophrenia despite its extraordinary burdens – the confused thinking, the delusions, the hallucinations, the anxiety and fear. Then she discovered a tool more commonly used among sociologists and anthropologists: oral history. Employing the device to examine schizophrenia has shifted her own perspective about a disease she thought she knew well.
“People with schizophrenia do not lose their individuality, even when the illness is very severe,” Dr. Crane says. “What I discovered through oral history is that it’s not about schizophrenia. It’s about a complexity of life that is very hard to get at any other way.”
For the past three years, on their own time and with no outside money, Dr. Crane and a fellow Mount St. Joseph psychologist, Tracy McDonough, have built the Schizophrenia Oral History Project. Other oral history collections have focused on diseases like AIDS or leprosy, but this is the first to focus on schizophrenia, they say.
So far they have recruited two dozen people to sit down with them and a voice recorder, asking their “narrators” simply: What’s it like to be you?
“The real beauty of this project,” says Dr. McDonough, “comes out of the fact that Lynda and I really try not to ask a lot of questions. The narrators want to tell their stories. They have something to say. Many of them have told us that no one has ever asked them about their lives before.”
The psychologists began the project by alerting local mental-health organizations that they were looking for participants willing to volunteer directly. “We didn’t want the providers to make the call because that can create a sense of, ‘I have to do this because my therapist wants me to,’” Dr. Crane says. “So each of the narrators had to take the initiative.”
One participant, Shirley Austin, 47, lives by herself on the west side of Cincinnati with her terrier, Fluffy. After a nightmarish childhood of violence and sexual abuse, Ms. Austin learned as a teenager that she had schizophrenia, and she says that even though she takes her medication, has relatives nearby and attends a church, she wrestles with loneliness. When her therapist told her about the oral history project, she was curious.
“Not even my therapists have ever asked me about my life that much,” Ms. Austin says. “I felt like I got strength and courage talking about what happened to me. I want to tell all the teenaged girls to be strong, that I’m a survivor, and they can be, too.”
Dr. Crane and Dr. McDonough have delivered more than 30 talks about the project in the Cincinnati area, visiting schools and local groups and collecting responses.
“I like to think of myself as open-minded, but the Schizophrenia Oral History Project helped me see that I was stigmatizing patients,” said Vicki Cheng, a nursing student at Miami University who heard one of the talks. “I would not have been surprised to learn that a patient with cancer or heart disease loved organic gardening or painting. Why in the world should I be surprised that someone with schizophrenia has hobbies, too?”
The project has benefited participants, too, like Alice Fischer, 43, who has schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia, and lives with her mother and brother in her childhood home in Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood. Ms. Fischer said she had been teased since grade school well into adulthood. “Even right now, sometimes on the bus, people say mean things to me,” she said.
She jumped at the chance to join the oral history project as one of its first narrators because she says newspapers and television too often communicate the wrong idea about people with mental illness. Ms. Fischer also prodded her brother, who has schizophrenia, to participate in the oral history project, but he resisted, fearful of repercussions from going public with his illness.
The project’s website features Ms. Fischer’s vivid paintings of owls or hearts or handprints with upbeat messages for world peace. “I want people to know I’m not dangerous,” she says. “They don’t know what a nice person I am.”
One of the narrators most gravely affected by schizophrenia is Paul Drake, 49, who for 14 years has lived with a tabby cat named Tiger in a small cluttered apartment on Cincinnati’s west side. Through his reading, he learned organic gardening to supplement his meager food budget. He starts tomatoes and other vegetables on his windowsill and grows them on a small plot behind his building. He has taught his neighbors how to garden.
Dr. Crane and Dr. McDonough have shared with the narrators some of the written responses they’ve received from listeners to the oral history project; one comment for Mr. Drake said, “I respect Paul’s insights and appreciate his straightforward sharing of how he copes.”
Mr. Drake says the positive reactions “make me feel good.” Amid the disorder of his mind, he frames a sentence to describe the impact that his participation has had on him.
“It gives me,” he says, “some immortality.”
Dr. Crane is retiring from teaching this spring and turning over leadership of the Schizophrenia Oral History Project to Dr. McDonough, who has been applying for grants to support the work and searching for more narrators.
A few weeks ago, they got a call from Alice Fischer’s brother. He said he was ready now to tell his story. Anne Saker is a writer in Maineville, Ohio.
Image source: alert.psychiatricnews.org



 
 
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Click Here to access original SMI Blog content  

Stories as a Window Into Schizophrenia
By Anne Saker, The New York Times

Alice Fischer, at home in Cincinnati, displaying one of her paintings. Ms. Fischer has schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia. She was one of the first narrators to tell her story to the Schizophrenia Oral History Project.

CINCINNATI — The psychologist Lynda Crane found that of the many injuries inflicted by schizophrenia, the greatest could be the pain of being forgotten. Just naming the illness somehow erased the person, something she learned when her 18-year-old son’s doctors said he had schizophrenia. Six years later, he committed suicide.

“It took me a long time to come to terms with it,” Dr. Crane says. “Even I had a hard time understanding it, how this bright man, with a brilliant future, could suffer like this. One thing I learned was that as soon as you mentioned the word, people stopped seeing the person. They just saw the diagnosis and a collection of symptoms. Doug, my son, was forgotten.”

For years Dr. Crane, a professor at the College of Mount St. Joseph in the western hills of Cincinnati, sought a way to enlighten her students and others about the ordinary people who live withschizophrenia despite its extraordinary burdens – the confused thinking, the delusions, the hallucinations, the anxiety and fear. Then she discovered a tool more commonly used among sociologists and anthropologists: oral history. Employing the device to examine schizophrenia has shifted her own perspective about a disease she thought she knew well.

“People with schizophrenia do not lose their individuality, even when the illness is very severe,” Dr. Crane says. “What I discovered through oral history is that it’s not about schizophrenia. It’s about a complexity of life that is very hard to get at any other way.”

For the past three years, on their own time and with no outside money, Dr. Crane and a fellow Mount St. Joseph psychologist, Tracy McDonough, have built the Schizophrenia Oral History Project. Other oral history collections have focused on diseases like AIDS or leprosy, but this is the first to focus on schizophrenia, they say.

So far they have recruited two dozen people to sit down with them and a voice recorder, asking their “narrators” simply: What’s it like to be you?

“The real beauty of this project,” says Dr. McDonough, “comes out of the fact that Lynda and I really try not to ask a lot of questions. The narrators want to tell their stories. They have something to say. Many of them have told us that no one has ever asked them about their lives before.”

The psychologists began the project by alerting local mental-health organizations that they were looking for participants willing to volunteer directly. “We didn’t want the providers to make the call because that can create a sense of, ‘I have to do this because my therapist wants me to,’” Dr. Crane says. “So each of the narrators had to take the initiative.”

One participant, Shirley Austin, 47, lives by herself on the west side of Cincinnati with her terrier, Fluffy. After a nightmarish childhood of violence and sexual abuse, Ms. Austin learned as a teenager that she had schizophrenia, and she says that even though she takes her medication, has relatives nearby and attends a church, she wrestles with loneliness. When her therapist told her about the oral history project, she was curious.

“Not even my therapists have ever asked me about my life that much,” Ms. Austin says. “I felt like I got strength and courage talking about what happened to me. I want to tell all the teenaged girls to be strong, that I’m a survivor, and they can be, too.”

Dr. Crane and Dr. McDonough have delivered more than 30 talks about the project in the Cincinnati area, visiting schools and local groups and collecting responses.

“I like to think of myself as open-minded, but the Schizophrenia Oral History Project helped me see that I was stigmatizing patients,” said Vicki Cheng, a nursing student at Miami University who heard one of the talks. “I would not have been surprised to learn that a patient with cancer or heart disease loved organic gardening or painting. Why in the world should I be surprised that someone with schizophrenia has hobbies, too?”

The project has benefited participants, too, like Alice Fischer, 43, who has schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia, and lives with her mother and brother in her childhood home in Cincinnati’s Price Hill neighborhood. Ms. Fischer said she had been teased since grade school well into adulthood. “Even right now, sometimes on the bus, people say mean things to me,” she said.

She jumped at the chance to join the oral history project as one of its first narrators because she says newspapers and television too often communicate the wrong idea about people with mental illness. Ms. Fischer also prodded her brother, who has schizophrenia, to participate in the oral history project, but he resisted, fearful of repercussions from going public with his illness.

The project’s website features Ms. Fischer’s vivid paintings of owls or hearts or handprints with upbeat messages for world peace. “I want people to know I’m not dangerous,” she says. “They don’t know what a nice person I am.”

One of the narrators most gravely affected by schizophrenia is Paul Drake, 49, who for 14 years has lived with a tabby cat named Tiger in a small cluttered apartment on Cincinnati’s west side. Through his reading, he learned organic gardening to supplement his meager food budget. He starts tomatoes and other vegetables on his windowsill and grows them on a small plot behind his building. He has taught his neighbors how to garden.

Dr. Crane and Dr. McDonough have shared with the narrators some of the written responses they’ve received from listeners to the oral history project; one comment for Mr. Drake said, “I respect Paul’s insights and appreciate his straightforward sharing of how he copes.”

Mr. Drake says the positive reactions “make me feel good.” Amid the disorder of his mind, he frames a sentence to describe the impact that his participation has had on him.

“It gives me,” he says, “some immortality.”

Dr. Crane is retiring from teaching this spring and turning over leadership of the Schizophrenia Oral History Project to Dr. McDonough, who has been applying for grants to support the work and searching for more narrators.

A few weeks ago, they got a call from Alice Fischer’s brother. He said he was ready now to tell his story.
Anne Saker is a writer in Maineville, Ohio.

Image source: alert.psychiatricnews.org

 

 





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