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I’m a psychologist, I’m a Marine, and I’m schizophrenic.

Dr. Frederick Frese made this statement while speaking at the 34th annual conference of the United States Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association in 2009.  The American Psychological Association advocacy award winner also declared, “I’ve got a message for all psychologists, for all my fellow Marines, for all my fellow travelers: Yeah, I’m schizophrenic and I absolutely refuse to be ashamed.”¹

Frese was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 25.  For over two decades he has spoken publicly about issues such as recovery and stigma and was a panelist on PBS’s MINDS ON THE EDGE: Facing Mental Illness.  He points out that few people diagnosed with schizophrenia will have a life like John Nash of A Beautiful Mind.  The more realistic scenario is that of Nathaniel Ayers of The Soloist, who became homeless while struggling with the disease and battled his own recovery. Frese offers advice based on his experience with the illness and years of counseling.

A Catch-22

In his article, “Twelve Aspects of Coping for Persons with Schizophrenia,”² Frese highlights the information his audiences have found most helpful.  On the top of his list is the need to admit “that your mind does not function properly.”  The catch-22 to admitting there is a problem is the fact that cognitive processes have been affected by the illness.  “It (schizophrenia) affects your belief system. . . It fools you.”

His advice for trying to help someone in denial is to avoid a direct attack on the issue.  Loosening rigid thinking takes time and occurs much better in a trusting relationship.  (I think we find this true in anyone who has become defensive as a result of fear or repeated misunderstanding.  Healthy people live in denial all the time.)

For the person in denial Frese believes it is helpful “to point out that, even though they may not have the disorder, it is true that they have been treated by others as though they do have mental illness.”  Accepting that fact, which is easy if the sufferer has been hospitalized, can motivate him or her to learn more about the symptoms.  Identifying the person suffering as a “survivor” can also help.

A Mystical Feeling

Another important point for a survivor to understand is that “this is not a mystical experience,” even if the sensations and visions seem cosmic or spiritual.  When the brain’s thought and belief systems become altered, rationality goes by the wayside.  “Poetic relationships and metaphorical associations dictate truth” instead, says Frese.  Special insights and powers seem normal and reasonable in this subjective state.  (See definition of ‘subjective’ below.)

A Non-Linear Line of Reason

Understanding the body’s reaction to stress is also vital for someone with symptoms called schizophrenia.  Stress initiates an out-of-proportion response in the areas of emotion and cognition.  Whereas healthy people might react to stressors in physiological ways–by developing hypertension, ulcers, or hives– people with a brain disorder react in the area of mental processes.  “We lose our ability to remain rational,” says Frese, and begin to think in non-linear ways.

Paranoia and delusional thinking are two examples of irrational responses.  Unfortunately, good stress can trigger the same effect.  For that reason, learning to withdraw to quieter surroundings can help.  Frese takes extra medication when involved in long periods of good stress.

A Marine’s Conclusion

Included in the article’s list of coping considerations are information about difficulty conversing with others; music and hobbies; when to reveal publicly; and the need for networking with others in the community. When asked if “sheer will” can overcome schizophrenia, Frese replied,

Schizophrenia is a disorder that one can learn to live with, but it takes time and experience.

“With more experience, ” he said, “those of us who are not too disabled can learn to cope and to function fairly well despite periodically experiencing symptoms.” ³

He and many others fellow travelers have found a way to cope and function.  They press forward while looking for ways to help you along.  Unashamed.

Dictionary.com  definitions of ‘subjective’:

  • existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself;
  • placing excessive emphasis on one’s own moods, attitudes, opinions, etc, unduly egocentric;
  • relating to properties or specific conditions of the mind as distinguished from general or universal experience.

¹ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3Zs0EDNBXQ
² “Twelve Aspects of Coping for Persons with Schizophrenia” by Frederick J. Frese, Ph.D., http://www.mentalhealth.com/story/p52-sc04.html#Head_1
³ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/nash/sfeature/sf_forum_0502c.htm