This week, on Tuesday, October 6 as part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, Queens Public Library hosted a panel discussion on schizophrenia featuring someone in remission from the illness, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist. Each brought their unique perspective on the illness to the discussion. Together, they explained the illness and discussed reasons to have hope for those who suffer from it.
Christina Bruni is a librarian who had a breakdown in 1987. Within three years, she had achieved a job and her own apartment. She is the author of Left of the Dial: A Memoir of Schizophrenia, Recovery, and Hope and is working on the forthcoming Working Assets: A Career Guide for Peers, a career guide. Bruni’s mother drove her to the hospital, and she believes that act has made all the difference in her recovery, as she explains that early intervention is key after the first onset of symptoms. Bruni says that her symptoms were gone after three weeks and that she has been symptom-free for 28 years. She credits three factors: adherence to treatment, using the creative process, and having family support. It is by expressing your identity that you will thrive in recovery, the author explained. “Find what gives you joy,” she says, “Recovery is as individual as a thumbprint.” Bruni explains that many people don’t think it is possible to recover from schizophrenia because “individuals who do well often don’t disclose.” However, she believes that “no one should be shamed for having an illness” and that “recovery comes in different guises.” For more about Christina’s work, visit her website.
The next speaker on the panel, psychologist Jennifer McKelvey, PhD, Program Director, Adult Outpatient Psychiatry Department & Crisis Center, Zucker Hillside Hospital, sought to dispel commonly spread myths about schizophrenia that are especially seen in the media. It is not a split or multiple personality and most of those with the illness are not violent; they are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Schizophrenia affects 1% of the population and develops earlier in males than females. It is often preceded by what is known as a prodromal phase when the individual may see shadows or think they have special abilities. Anxiety and depression can also be present, as well as sleep disruption. About 70% of those diagnosed with schizophrenia have experienced a prodromal period, but not everyone with a prodromal period develops the illness.
Schizophrenia can cause challenges in work, relationships, and self-care, and these symptoms last more than six months. The individual often has difficulty being aware of what has changed. Two types of symptoms characterize schizophrenia, known as negative and positive. Positive symptoms are those that are in addition to what one would normally experience, such as hallucinations, delusions, disorganization of speech and thought, and paranoia. Negative symptoms include cognitive difficulties such as problems with memory and attention, loss of speech, flat affect, lack of pleasure or interest, lack of initiative and spontaneity, and social withdrawal.
Dr. Anna Costakis, MD, Adult Ambulatory Psychiatry Director, Department of Psychiatry, Zucker Hillside Hospital, spoke about how medication is the first-line treatment for this illness and how we are at a frontier in developing new and more effective medications. Medication helps reduce the intensity and frequency of symptoms and in some patients can eliminate symptoms. Nowadays, there are many options for medication, including pills and long-acting injections.
While vulnerability to developing schizophrenia can be genetic, genetics is not the entire picture of its development. Research is ongoing into how it develops.
The panelists spoke about the importance of listening to someone you know who may be developing a mental illness and offering support by trying to guide them to treatment. The longer an individual experiences symptoms without treatment, the more difficult it is to treat them; this was described as the kindling effect: The longer a fire builds, the longer it takes it put it out.
Some resources for those experiencing mental illnesses and their support networks include the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), NYC Well, Fountain House, Venture House, and the walk-in clinic Crisis Center at Zucker Hillside Hospital, which is now open from 9-3pm Monday-Friday.