Yesterday in the New York Times an op ed piece appeared entitled ”Successful and Schizophrenic’‘ that affirmed the importance of neurodiversity and the value of strengths in people with mental health labels. Written by Elyn Saks, who has lived with schizophrenia all her life yet been highly successful in several fields (professor of law, psychoanalyst, MacArthur fellow), the piece describes a study she and her colleagues at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. conducted where they interviewed twenty research subjects who had high-functioning schizophrenia. They were studying for college, had careers, or in other ways demonstrated that they were living a fulfilling life. Saks and her colleagues discovered that the subjects attributed their success to a number of self-devised strategies (in addition to medication and psychotherapy) including exercise, controlling sensory inputs (e.g. one subject reported putting on music at a high volume to drown out his ”voices”), diet, sufficient sleep, identifying triggers to prevent a full-blown episode, and cognitive techniques such as mentally challenging the validity of one’s delusions. Saks cited the importance of work, which allowed these individuals (including Saks) to have a focus to distract them from the craziness of their illness and to provide a feeling of meaningful involvement in life. She also pointed out how important relationships were to help provide support in coping with the disease.
Above all, however, was a belief in oneself. As one subject said: “Every person has a unique gift or unique self to bring to the world.” Earlier in her life, Saks had been told that she would probably only be able to work in menial tasks if she was able to work at all. Clearly, her essay (and her best-selling book The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, which I enjoyed reading several years ago), demonstrates that people with schizophrenia can be highly successful and can contribute important things to our culture. Her perspective adds to what we know about the strengths of people with neurodiversities, and deserves careful study by mental health professionals and educators who may need to reassess their own ”deficit-oriented” paradigm concerning severe mental illness, and embrace a perspective based on hope, success, capabilities, and diversity.
For more information about neurodiversity, see Thomas Armstrong, The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain.