Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The son who vanished ... Add to ...

30 Percentage of people with the disease who recover well and are able to regain their previous level of functioning

40 to 60 Estimated percentage of Canadians with schizophrenia who attempt suicide

10 Percentage of Canadians with schizophrenia who die from

suicide

Sources: A report on Mental Illness in Canada, Schizophrenia Society of Ontario

*****

Tom Harrell: 62, renowned American jazz trumpeter. Mr. Harrell struggles with a severe form of schizo-affective disorder, a debilitating blend of mood swings and paranoia, diagnosed in his early 20s while a freshman at Stanford University. While the side effects of his medication and lingering symptoms of his illness often make it hard for him to communicate offstage, they have not dampened his talent. In a recent interview with Stanford Magazine, he refused to draw a link between schizophrenia and his musical ability, suggesting the opposite: "One of the first reasons I wanted to play the trumpet is that it healed me."

John Nash: 80, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Dr. Nash was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 31, not long after being named the brightest star in American mathematics by Fortune magazine. Recently married at the time, he believed aliens were trying to contact him through the newspaper, and later spent years travelling Europe trying to achieve refugee status. He was committed to hospital for long periods, against his will. Over decades, he learned to control the voices. "One could be very successful in life and very normal," he said in a newspaper profile. "But if you're Van Gogh or artists like that, you may be a little off."

*****

THE VOICE OF GOD?

Why do so many people with schizophrenia, like Jesse Bigelow, seem to fixate on ideas of God, Jesus and the Devil? It may be a way of subconsciously rationalizing a disease that often strikes teenagers and young people without warning.

"When you had a normal childhood, you don't jump to the conclusion that you are mentally ill," says Bill MacPhee, publisher of Schizophrenia Digest. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s, when he began seeing words float off the scripture text he was reading and faces in the knots of wood on his bedroom walls. "You think that something supernatural is happening. You give the credit to God."

Culture also influences delusions and hallucinations. In societies with strong superstitions about ghosts, for instance, people diagnosed with the disease are more likely to see apparitions that conform to those beliefs. The rate of religious delusions among patients varies with the prominence of religion in each country - from 36 per cent of schizophrenic patients in the United States to as little as 7 per cent in Japan.

In Switzerland, researchers found that 82 per cent of highly religious patients claimed they had been overtaken by evil spirits, coinciding with a long-standing superstition there that demons cause mental illness. And culturally specific colours and symbols often become involved - a nurse wearing white may be seen as an angel, or the left hand, as in Jesse's case, as a sign of evil.

Religious delusions have become less common as North American society becomes more secular, says Ted Lo, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Today, he more often sees patients with paranoid delusions centring on family members or co-workers, or fears that the police are targeting them.

The stigma around mental illness also makes people look for other explanations - even when they know that they have the disease. Pamela Forsythe, a Saint John psychiatrist and president of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, recently treated an older woman who had experienced previous psychotic episodes and suddenly began feeling similar symptoms again. "She wanted me to do a CT scan because she was hoping it was a brain tumour."

Better to believe that delusions are caused by a cancer - or by God - than to face fears, however unwarranted, of being locked up forever in a hospital ward.

"The last thing you want to think is that your life is going to be train-wrecked by this kind of problem," Dr. Forsythe says, and "that people will never look at you the same way again."

Erin Anderssen

*****

HOW IS SOMEONE COMMITTED?

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories