One of my recent stories, “Worlds Less Traveled,” asks a question about psychosis and the struggles of a professional dealing with psychotic symptoms. The story is lighthearted enough. But, of course, that particular question is not.
Most are now familiar with the story of John Nash, dramatized in the book and movie, A Beautiful Mind. Nash is a Nobel-Prize-winning mathematician whose works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations provided insight into the forces that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life. But, as highlighted in the movie, Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. According to Nash, he experienced mental disturbances from 1959, which he described as a process of change “from scientific rationality of thinking into the delusional thinking characteristic of persons who are psychiatrically diagnosed as ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘paranoid schizophrenic,'” including seeing himself as a messenger with a special function pitted against persecution and hidden schemers.
Many similar struggles exist, including both successes and failures. One spokesperson worthy of attention is Elyn Saks, Associate Dean and Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the USC Gould Law School, an expert in mental health law and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner. Saks lives with schizophrenia. She wrote the best-selling autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, published by Hyperion Books in 2007.
Saks is outspoken about her ongoing journey. According to Saks:
“There’s a tremendous need to implode the myths of mental illness, to put a face on it, to show people that a diagnosis does not have to lead to a painful and oblique life.”
“We who struggle with these disorders can lead full, happy, productive lives, if we have the right resources.”
Saks has been researching high-functioning people with schizophrenia in Los Angeles, who suffer from “mild delusions or hallucinatory behavior.” They are successful technicians, and medical, legal and business professionals. Many are studying toward college or graduate degrees.
She has provided interviews about her experience, and in addition to The Center Cannot Hold, Saks has published the following books, as well as many important articles:
- Refusing Care: Forced Treatment and the Rights of the Mentally Ill (University of Chicago Press, 2002).
- Interpreting Interpretation: The Limits of Hermeneutic Psychoanalysis (Yale University Press, 1999).
- Jekyll on Trial: Multiple Personality Disorder and Criminal Law (with Stephen H. Behnke) (New York University Press, 1997).
We all struggle with our demons. For some, those struggles rise to the level of drawing a diagnosis involving psychotic symptoms. We have come a long way in our understanding of the mind and treatments are better now than ever in the past. But we still have a long way to go. As a society, we often stigmatize psychiatric diagnoses. Fighting the unwarranted stigma of mental illness is one of the ways to help move the ball forward. For more information about mental illness and how to help families dealing with the myriad issues surrounding mental illness, see the National Alliance on Mental Illness (“NAMI”) website, or visit any one of its many local associations.