One of the most frequently mentioned techniques that helped our research participants manage their symptoms was work. “Work has been an important part of who I am,” said an educator in our group. “When you become useful to an organization and feel respected in that organization, there’s a certain value in belonging there.” This person works on the weekends too because of “the distraction factor.” In other words, by engaging in work, the crazy stuff often recedes to the sidelines.
Personally, I reach out to my doctors, friends and family whenever I start slipping, and I get great support from them. I eat comfort food (for me, cereal) and listen to quiet music. I minimize all stimulation. Usually these techniques, combined with more medication and therapy, will make the symptoms pass. But the work piece — using my mind — is my best defense. It keeps me focused, it keeps the demons at bay. My mind, I have come to say, is both my worst enemy and my best friend.
That is why it is so distressing when doctors tell their patients not to expect or pursue fulfilling careers. Far too often, the conventional psychiatric approach to mental illness is to see clusters of symptoms that characterize people. Accordingly, many psychiatrists hold the view that treating symptoms with medication is treating mental illness. But this fails to take into account individuals’ strengths and capabilities, leading mental health professionals to underestimate what their patients can hope to achieve in the world.
It’s not just schizophrenia: earlier this month, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry posted a study showing that a small group of people who were given diagnoses of autism, a developmental disorder, later stopped exhibiting symptoms. They seemed to have recovered — though after years of behavioral therapy and treatment. A recent New York Times Magazine article described a new company that hires high-functioning adults with autism, taking advantage of their unusual memory skills and attention to detail.
I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna about schizophrenia; mental illness imposes real limitations, and it’s important not to romanticize it. We can’t all be Nobel laureates like John Nash of the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” But the seeds of creative thinking may sometimes be found in mental illness, and people underestimate the power of the human brain to adapt and to create.
An approach that looks for individual strengths, in addition to considering symptoms, could help dispel the pessimism surrounding mental illness. Finding “the wellness within the illness,” as one person with schizophrenia said, should be a therapeutic goal. Doctors should urge their patients to develop relationships and engage in meaningful work. They should encourage patients to find their own repertory of techniques to manage their symptoms and aim for a quality of life as they define it. And they should provide patients with the resources — therapy, medication and support — to make these things happen.
“Every person has a unique gift or unique self to bring to the world,” said one of our study’s participants. She expressed the reality that those of us who have schizophrenia and other mental illnesses want what everyone wants: in the words of Sigmund Freud, to work and to love.