A Diagnosis of Serious Mental Illness is Not the End of Hope for a Decent Life

by: Joseph M. Bowers

One of my pet peeves is anti stigma PR campaigns. Much money that could go into treatment is spent uselessly. This is not to say that stigma is not a problem, but not just stigma among the general public but stigma among mental health professionals and, most damaging self-stigmatization among those of us with a serious mental illness diagnosis.

Too many people with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia once so diagnosed lose all hope for the future. I have heard of professionals telling such patients that they will never be capable of taking care of themselves.

I recently read The Center Cannot Hold by Dr. Elyn Saks. Dr. Saks experienced severe and persistent symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia and tried with great gusto for more than a dozen years to get off medication. Meanwhile she graduated valedictorian from Vanderbilt, earned a masters degree from Oxford and a law degree from Yale. She is now a professor at USC.

This is a rare case and Elyn had the good fortune of coming from a reasonably well-to-do family. Dr. Saks obviously has a very high IQ. I don’t want to say that this is always possible or cast blame on those with extremely treatment resistant diseases who don’t respond significantly to any currently available treatment. Of those unable to recover to any appreciable degree, most often it is nobodies fault. There is no shame there.

Our self awareness is affected by feedback from those around us. Too often when led to believe we have no chance we do believe it and it becomes self fulfilling. I have encountered too many people with serious mental illnesses who are convinced they have no chance. Usually, this is just not so.

My story is in many ways similar to Dr. Saks and in significant ways very different. I did not come from an affluent family-quite the opposite and did not achieve nearly as much as she. But despite a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia shortly after turning seventeen and more than twenty years of recurring psychotic episodes, I have lived a reasonably successful and normal life. I realize that I am an outlier but my story is a story of hope.

I am very disappointed that my book, Life Under a Cloud. The Story of a Schizophrenic sold so few copies and had no major impact but feel it was worth the time and effort I gave to it. A friend and former coworker who read it told me he told a young man with schizophrenia about me and his face lit up thinking for the first time since getting the diagnosis that he might have a chance at a life worth living. I know of two people who have read it numerous times because it inspires them and gives them hope. A mental health professional I know tells me that she tells most of her patients about me and my story.

Getting to an advanced stage of recovery is not easy for anyone. My life has been very hard, but it has also been productive and rewarding. It’s simultaneously true that I wouldn’t want to ever go through it over again and that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia is not the end of hope for a decant life.

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