Our Failed Approach to Schizophrenia By PAUL STEINBERG
TOO many pendulums have swung in the wrong directions in the United States. I am not referring only to the bizarre all-or-nothing rhetoric around gun control, but to the swing in mental health care over the past 50 years: too little institutionalizing of teenagers and young adults (particularly men, generally more prone to violence) who have had a recent onset of schizophrenia; too little education about the public health impact of untreated mental illness; too few psychiatrists to talk about and treat severe mental disorders — even though the medications available in the past 15 to 20 years can be remarkably effective.
Instead we have too much concern about privacy, labeling and stereotyping, about the civil liberties of people who have horrifically distorted thinking. In our concern for the rights of people with mental illness, we have come to neglect the rights of ordinary Americans to be safe from the fear of being shot — at home and at schools, in movie theaters, houses of worship and shopping malls.
“Psychosis” — a loss of touch with reality — is an umbrella term, not unlike “fever.” As with fevers, there are many causes, from drugs and alcohol to head injuries and dementias. The most common source of severe psychosis in young adults is schizophrenia, a badly named disorder that, in the original Greek, means “split mind.” In fact, schizophrenia has nothing to do with multiple personality, a disorder that is usually caused by major repeated traumas in childhood. Schizophrenia is a physiological disorder caused by changes in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is essential for language, abstract thinking and appropriate social behavior. This highly evolved brain area is weakened by stress, as often occurs in adolescence.
Psychiatrists and neurobiologists have observed biochemical changes and alterations in brain connections in patients with schizophrenia. For example, miscommunications between the prefrontal cortex and the language area in the temporal cortex may result in auditory hallucinations, as well as disorganized thoughts. When the voices become commands, all bets are off. The commands might insist, for example, that a person jump out of a window, even if he has no intention of dying, or grab a set of guns and kill people, without any sense that he is wreaking havoc. Additional symptoms include other distorted thinking, like the notion that something — even a spaceship, or a comic book character — is controlling one’s thoughts and actions.
Schizophrenia generally rears its head between the ages of 15 and 24, with a slightly later age for females. Early signs may include being a quirky loner — often mistaken for Asperger’s syndrome — but acute signs and symptoms do not appear until adolescence or young adulthood.
People with schizophrenia are unaware of how strange their thinking is and do not seek out treatment. At Virginia Tech, where Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people in a rampage shooting in 2007, professors knew something was terribly wrong, but he was not hospitalized for long enough to get well. The parents and community-college classmates of Jared L. Loughner, who killed 6 people and shot and injured 13 others (including a member of Congress) in 2011, did not know where to turn. We may never know with certainty what demons tormented Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, though his acts strongly suggest undiagnosed schizophrenia.
I write this despite the so-called Goldwater Rule, an ethical standard the American Psychiatric Association adopted in the 1970s that directs psychiatrists not to comment on someone’s mental state if they have not examined him and gotten permission to discuss his case. It has had a chilling effect. After mass murders, our airwaves are filled with unfounded speculations about video games, our culture of hedonism and our loss of religious faith, while psychiatrists, the ones who know the most about severe mental illness, are largely marginalized.
Severely ill people like Mr. Lanza fall through the cracks, in part because school counselors are more familiar with anxiety and depression than with psychosis. Hospitalizations for acute onset of schizophrenia have been shortened to the point of absurdity. Insurance companies and families try to get patients out of hospitals as quickly as possible because of the prohibitively high cost of care.
As documented by writers like the law professor Elyn R. Saks, author of the memoir “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” medication and treatment work. The vast majority of people with schizophrenia, treated or untreated, are not violent, though they are more likely than others to commit violent crimes. When treated with medication after a rampage, many perpetrators who have shown signs of schizophrenia — including John Lennon’s killer and Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin — have recognized the heinousness of their actions and expressed deep remorse.
It takes a village to stop a rampage. We need reasonable controls on semiautomatic weapons; criminal penalties for those who sell weapons to people with clear signs of psychosis; greater insurance coverage and capacity at private and public hospitals for lengthier care for patients with schizophrenia; intense public education about how to deal with schizophrenia; greater willingness to seek involuntary commitment of those who pose a threat to themselves or others; and greater incentives for psychiatrists (and other mental health professionals) to treat the disorder, rather than less dangerous conditions.
Too many people with acute schizophrenia have gone untreated. There have been too many Glocks, too many kids and adults cut down in their prime. Enough already.
Paul Steinberg is a psychiatrist in private practice.
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