Living with Schizophrenia
When I volunteered for Mind in London as part of their befriending service, I encountered the human side of schizophrenia, which can strike unexpectedly early on in life.
Brandon Staglioni, communications director of the One Mind Institute, describes his first psychotic episode as an eighteen year old. It was late at night, and he’d just returned from a scuba diving weekend, feeling stressed about a recent breakup.
‘It was like half of my head suddenly disappeared, the right half. All the tension that had built up there over the last week had vanished, leaving a hole in my awareness.’
He tried to work out what had just happened. It felt like half of his mind had somehow left, and with it all the emotions towards his friends and family. He wanted to try and get back to sleep and forget all about it, but he couldn’t.
‘The drive to be whole was too strong. I was awake for the next four days, wandering the local streets in search of the part of me I thought I had lost.’
During this time he instinctively covered his right eye and right ear, in a frantic attempt to stop another personality from entering.
This kind of confusion – delusional thinking, hallucinations and voices that seem real, are classic symptoms of the psychosis caused by schizophrenia. The next few days were a time of sleepless confusion and bizarre encounters.
Eventually, his friend checked him into a local psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
‘At the time, the diagnosis of schizophrenia was almost too much for me to take.’
Brandon had a supportive family around him, which has been really valuable for his journey towards a more balanced life. Alongside close relationships, he’s found medication, meditation practice, playing guitar and ‘years of psychotherapy’ all to be helpful.
Another aspect in his recovery was playing computer games designed to strengthen his cognitive abilities. The games drew on research into nueroplasticity at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Nueroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and grow, making it possible to create new neural networks through mental training.
Brandon’s parents, Garen and Shari started The Music Festival for Mental Health, which raises millions for brain research programs, and helps to spread the word about mental illness.
‘Even today, half of my life later, I get some of the same feelings, that some people might call bizarre if they ever had them, but that I now just take in stride.’
He still sometimes feels that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way he’s experiencing things, but recognises that it’s a sort of faulty thinking.
‘Now, when I feel this way, I just relax and it goes away.’
Not everyone has a close family, but most people in London and the UK with schizophrenia have the support of a Community Mental Health Team (CMHT). The CMHT is a group of mental health workers, including nurses, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists.
I first encountered patients being treated for psychosis during my placement at the Maudsley Hospital in South London.
Anyone in the grip of an acute schizophrenic episode will normally be treated with antipsychotic medication. These medications can work within a few hours for anxiety or aggression. Other symptoms, such as hallucinations or hearing voices can take longer to bring under control.
Often they’re just needed for a dew days. But sometimes, medications have to be taken for a year or two to prevent any reoccurrences. That can be difficult, as they come with a range of side effects.
Patients are brought to a secure hospital ward when they need to be protected from themselves or from others. While they’re there, a psychiatrist looks for an effective combination of medications, which can take some experimentation. Weekly meetings are held with a panel of mental health professionals and family members to discuss progress.
Longer term care
Once a patient is able to leave hospital, they’ll be released into the care of a Community Mental Health Team.
Treatment at this stage is often a combination of antipsychotic medication and talking therapies, such as CBT and psychotherapy. Work with a therapist can can help with the adjustment to a new life, coping with symptoms, and coming to terms with a new diagnosis.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
The most common talk therapy in the treatment of schizophrenia is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It’s a therapy that helps clients identify the link between thinking patterns, feelings and behaviour. Once a way of thinking has been identified, an assessment can be made, with the option to change the thinking into something more realistic or useful.
Psychotherapy and counselling
Some people find the long term support from a psychotherapist to be helpful in their treatment. It’s a therapy where the client can explore past traumas, look at relationships, and come to terms with what they’re currently going through.
Schizophrenia tends to have on effect on the whole family, as they do their best to offer support and care. Family therapy is a chance for the family to come together with a therapist, and talk about some of the practical and emotional challenges they’re facing. It normally takes place over a period of around six months.