Susanne Long was my sister, three years younger. She was funny and savvy. She was creative and kind and curious. She had a master’s degree, and she taught English as a second language in Washington, D.C., and later in Seattle. She spent two tours of duty in the Peace Corps, one in Liberia, the other in Morocco. She baked, cooked, knitted, quilted, played recorder. She took photographs. She loved to learn languages, and she loved to garden. She trained as a marathon runner. She was happily married, then unhappily married, then divorced. She was a great beauty, with high cheekbones and a Queen Nefertiti nose. She loved to hang out with her friends.
At the age of 32, never before, schizophrenia came to call. She began to hear nasty phrases hissed at her: We’re going to get you, etc. We may call them voices, but to her they were sentences spoken from the mouths of colleagues and passersby.A sad story, but a very real human story. We do not know precisely why this once-vibrant and creative individual decided to end her life, but we have some ideas. About one in ten persons suffering schizophrenia commit suicide. We are understanding more about mental illness, about paranoia and about the voices some people hear in their heads, telling them horrible things that are not true, but, yet, to such individuals seem real nevertheless. Delusions. Auditory hallucinations. It seems like hell itself.
Over the next near-decade her delusional states increased from sporadic to chronic. On July 21, 1986, at the age of 40, she vanished.
She’d been a voluntary resident at a mental health clinic not far from our parents’ home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Our father had taken her out to lunch. She had signed back in. Our mother arrived to take her out to dinner. She was not there. The staff had decided, sign-in notwithstanding, that she was still out with our father. System breakdown. Hours had passed.
Later, one of the other residents recalled how she’d said goodbye to my father. She had flashed him a smile—a beautiful, almost angelic smile.
We and the sheriff’s office conducted a nationwide search, plastering telephone poles and homeless shelters with missing-person posters. My father, with his dogs, searched the deep, tangled, marshy woods near the clinic. The weeks went by, and we could not find Susanne. I was in Boston for the summer, and I organized my friends to plaster the city with posters. Have you seen Susanne? No one had seen Susanne.
That fall, in those woods, on November 7, 1986, two hunters, believing they had downed a white-bellied doe, came across my sister’s white bones. No one knows exactly what happened, but there was no suggestion of foul play. It was a probable suicide.
About one percent of the world's people suffer from schizophrenia, this article says, which would equal about three million people in the United States alone, or 350,000 individuals in Canada. Tens of millions of individual worldwide—a large number of persons suffering from something that they have not decided to have. The World Health Organization (WHO) places the number diagnosed or affected at 24 million worldwide, using an adult incidence rate closer to 0.7 percent. Other organizations and academic studies place the figure at between 0.3 percent and 1.0 percent. [see here, here and here]
One of the questions posed by evolutionary scientists is why schizophrenia persists if it so destructive to humans. The answer is that it is not. Well, not precisely; it is imagination in its most dysfunctional and disruptive forms.
Imagination, suggests Princeton molecular biologist Lee M. Silver, is related to the brain’s “noise” (random firings of neurons, or nerve cells), thus generating more associations. Brain scans of people with schizophrenia and their unafflicted family members show mega-amounts of random noise. Brain scans of control subjects (no schizophrenia in the family) do not.There are environmental factors; there are genetic factors; there are many factors that co-mingle together, as is the case with many diseases. And schizophrenia is a disease. The article is worth reading, if only to peel away some myths and to say what needs saying: persons with schizophrenia require extensive help and community support, and with this can lead meaningful and productive lives.
A recent major study confirmed a high association between people in creative professions and their first-degree relatives (parents, offspring, and siblings) who have psychopathologies such as schizophrenia. Could there be inherited brain structures that produce thought patterns such as “broad associative thinking” in which contradictory images and ideas knock about together, structures that serve an artist’s work but that in some brains go too far and become the twisted thoughts of mental illness? Does selection for a more robust imagination—so very useful to us humans—keep imagination’s more dysfunctional forms from dying out?
Mental illness and schizophrenia, given its commonality across cultures, requires greater discussion and understanding. It does not have to be tucked away in a dark closet, but given the light of human compassion and scientific understanding that this article does so well to do.
You can read the rest of the article at [AmerSchol]