Monday, June 15, 2009

A culture of low expectations

The other day I attended a lecture by a prominent psychiatrist. The topic was stigma surrounding the mentally ill. He had done an extensive study focused on people with schizophrenia. He found that often people with schizophrenia practice stigma against themselves and cited an interview he had with a schizophrenic man who believed that he could not work. "Where did he ever get this idea?" the psychiatrist asked, genuinely puzzled that the man operated under this belief system. I was impressed by this psychiatrist because it was the first time that I had ever heard a psychiatrist use the words "work" and "schizophrenia" in the same sentence. By "work", I am talking about a full-time paid job, not volunteer work. I hope he was thinking the same. However, that he was puzzled about why his research subject would hold this opinion was troubling.

It is no surprise to the rest of us where this man gets the idea he cannot work. It starts with the psychiatrist, who generally has a gloom and doom attitude surrounding what people with schizophrenia diagnosis are capable of doing. If you want to see a brief look of panic/unease register on your psychiatrist's face, try suggesting that you would like to get your driver's license. Then, we move on to well known organizations' and institutions' websites that describe schizophrenia as "the most serious of the mental health disorders". They talk about schizophrenia in terms of functionality, social housing options and quality of life, as if that's the highest standard one can aim for. They talk about schizophrenia as a disease of the brain. They rarely, if ever, mention full time jobs. They talk a lot about hope, but I think our man can read between the lines. He has gotten the message right.

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