Myths can be more harmful than lies, Nobel laureate Harry Kroto has said, because they are more difficult to recognize and often go unexamined. For many years, a diagnosis of schizophrenia was like a prison sentence, because many people (some of them in the medical profession) held to the notion that a schizophrenic could not recover from the illness and was condemned to an inexorable decline into madness.
Like any myth, this one had some truth to it. Many people with severe symptoms do not recover. But some can, as Eleanor Longden discovered for herself.
Longden began hearing voices when she was an undergraduate. At first they were somewhat benign, making mostly neutral, factual comments, but they grew more troublesome as she struggled to adjust to college life. Longden was diagnosed as schizophrenic and underwent conventional treatment. By her own account, in “Listening to Voices” in the September/October 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND, the label of schizophrenic and the attitudes of those around her to that label exacerbated her own internal struggles. The voices grew more menacing. Longden began her own slide into madness.
But then something odd happened: she began to recover. She did so in part, she says, by accepting the voices in her head as an aspect of her own personality. She listened to them, and tried to understand them. In this way she was able to tame them, and she got enough control over her life to attend school and pursue her graduate studies.
When I first met Longden at the TED conference in Long Beach, Calif., in February, I had never given much thought to the 20 to 30 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia who manage to recover substantially over a few years. Much of this improvement has to do with medications such as clozapine, risperidone and olanzapine that were developed in the 1990s. Cognitive behavioral therapy has also helped patients deal with paranoia and other “maladaptive thinking,” as Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz wrote in “Living with Schizophrenia” in the March/April 2010 issue of MIND. “And family therapies focus on educating family members about the disorder and on reducing the criticism and hostility they direct toward patients.” Longden has written an e-book, out today, that further develops her arguments for a more nuanced view of mental illness.
Longden’s story of personal triumph is a reminder to examine prevailing attitudes about schizophrenia. Contrary to some popular misconceptions, people who receive the diagnosis are not all alike, they don’t have multiple personalities, their illness most likely does not stem from family attitudes and behaviors, and at least some of them can recover. Her story reminds us that labels can hide as much as they reveal.