A recent news account demonstrates why stigma is alive and well. The endless reporting on psychotic killers does nothing to prevent these tragedies from happening. Instead, it gets the public riled up over the safety of our citizens. Unfortunately, the threat of ongoing violence lingers.
It's time to take back the media. We do this first of all by taking our medication and acting as model citizens. I'll report the details of a news story that got me thinking about this topic. In the journalism industry, there's a slogan: "If it bleeds, it leads" the news accounts lineup.
Ordinary people with schizophrenia doing great things doesn't seem to be the norm in newspaper reporting. The story I detail is a case in point. A person with a history of violence is given a day pass in the community while I, a 23-year old in full remission when I lived in a halfway house, couldn't even go to a movie without clearing it with staff.
Something has to change. Here's what happened, and why I think we need to take back the media. Where is the justice for people with schizophrenia who take our medication and contribute our talents to society?
Vadim Babyrev escaped three months ago from South Beach Psychiatric Center on Staten Island, in New York City. He had killed his mother with a clothes iron in 1999. While on his day pass in July, unescorted and in the community, he fled. This Thursday he was taken into custody after being found illegally riding a freight train in North Carolina.
In 2005, six years after he killed his mother, he was taken off his medication and, in 5 months, his symptoms returned, according to court documents. He became violent again. A 2013 study of peer-reviewed research on relapse from schizophrenia, which is high, found that mean patient relapse time was between 7 and 11 months after drug treatment is stopped.
Dr. John Kane, not affiliated with the Babyrev case, is a distinguished psychiatrist, psychiatry professor, and schizophrenia researcher, who asserted in a Staten Island Advance online news report that, in his view, a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, who has a history of violence when psychotic, has an illness that gives the person the potential to become violent again.
With news articles and statements like this is it any wonder individuals with schizophrenia can't get a fair shake in society? The account inferred Babyrev wasn't taking medication during the three months he was on the loose. This is the crux of the stigma: not taking your medication.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, in his current edition of Surviving Schizophrenia, quotes research that indicates 25 percent of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are able to discontinue the medication and do perfectly fine. Torrey does not detail the statistics about the people in this research. Had they been violent in the past, did they have a chronic form of schizophrenia before remitting without drugs, and what kinds of symptoms did they have prior to going drug-free?
In April 1992, my first doctor supervised a drug holiday that failed quickly even though he had told me at our first meeting post-hospital that I had a mild form. By July 2, 1992, I wound up back in the hospital. It was the sole drug holiday I ever attempted. By committing to take the medication, I've been in total remission and symptom-free over 22 years and counting.
After becoming a mental health activist in 2002, I championed getting the right treatment right away. My signature story that I tell in my memoir, Left of the Dial (to go on sale this December), is that I received the right treatment with the Stelazine within 24 hours of my break and the symptoms stopped completely three weeks later.
As of today, I don't recommend that a person goes on a drug holiday. At all. If you or your loved one does go on a drug holiday that's your choice. If the holiday fails and you relapse, that's the one-and-only drug holiday you should go on in my professional experience.
People discontinue their schizophrenia drugs for any number of reasons, like the side effects of the drugs, and often when they've achieved superstar success and they don't think they need to take the drugs anymore. Unfortunately, the pervasive stereotype of individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia is that we can never recover, never achieve remission, and never do anything so-called normal people can do.
This stereotype exists all too often, and it exists going into 2015, in the minds of mental health professionals that treat patients, as well as in the minds of the public and news reporters.
If you're doing well, you can't possibly have schizophrenia, this line of reasoning goes. A friend, who has schizophrenia and rose up to become the CEO of corporations, met with a prospective doctor circa 2005. The doctor told him my friend shouldn't invent a story about becoming a CEO just to feel better about having schizophrenia. This was in 2005.
It seems there's no happy medium in the media, nor in the eyes of the public and of professionals. You're either incapable of achieving very much if you have schizophrenia, or you're only capable of being a violent criminal.
I hope to change this perception when my memoir, Left of the Dial, is published soon. For every Vadim Babyrev, there's a Christina Bruni.
It steams me that the media devotes endless column space, online and in newspapers, to people with schizophrenia that kill other people. Devoting endless reportage to these crimes does nothing to deter future crimes.
Taking a violent person off his meds does nothing to erase this permanent stigma in everyone's minds. It cements the idea that life will never be beautiful for those of us diagnosed with a no-fault brain disorder.
To combat the stigma, individuals with schizophrenia, who need medication, shouldn't keep going on drug holidays where they relapse and get violent or become symptomatic over and over. Lack of treatment equals ongoing stigma.
Lack of treatment often equates with a person living up to a stereotype, thus perpetuating news stories about killers or about just plain dysfunctional people that perpetuate the tarring of everyone with schizophrenia.
For the record, I don't own a clothes iron. I use a travel steamer, and it only gets used on my clothes.
Talk about me in the media. Talk about my friend, the ex-CEO. And while the media is at it, don't give column space to the anti-psychiatry haters that push their no-medication-at-any-time agenda.
Everyone living with schizophrenia, ourselves, and family members with loved ones with this illness, deserves better.
Published On: October 18, 2014