I recently read an editorial in the New York Times about a successful law professor in California who also lives with schizophrenia.
The article was very well written and painted a picture of the vast difference between the life doctors expected for her and the one she has made for herself.
Common practice when a person begins exhibiting the highly disruptive symptoms of schizophrenia is to inform the patient that life will hold many challenges.
The woman in the editorial was told she could expect to live in supportive housing and would likely not enjoy significant romantic relationships or a challenging career. Her life would consist simply of managing her disease.
What followed was likely a difficult journey with many supports and successful treatment strategies—and in the end, this remarkable individual has been able to defy expectations.
Not only did Elyn Saks excel professionally until she became a chaired professor of law and even received a genius grant, but she also has a fulfilling personal life and is happily married today.
This is the kind of story we all want to hear.
It reminds us also of the story of John Nash from the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Perhaps we can think of one or two other outliers who also lived with mental illness. We all want to hear about people who beat the odds.
But should these stories be so few and far between? Or should we all be changing our expectations for those with serious mental illness?
To be sure, diseases such as schizophrenia can be debilitating and although some people respond very well to existing treatments, not everyone does.
That said, we should not set limits for patients with these conditions but should instead encourage everyone to strive for the most fulfilling life they can achieve.
Although not everyone with schizophrenia is destined for fame or fortune, a psychiatric diagnosis need not be a sentence to a life without meaning.
Each of us has some unique strengths, which ought to be developed as much as possible.
On the flip side of the disruptive symptoms in mental illness, there is also potential for different and creative thinking.
We should not forget that some of the greatest artists in history have lived with serious mental illness.
With all of this in mind, our treatment approach should work not only to minimize the negative effects of symptoms, but also to find the talents and strengths within each patient.
We would do well to encourage patients to find work that is enjoyable and meaningful, to pursue relationships and come up with strategies for managing their symptoms.
Every person likely has an idea of what they want from life. Once this has been identified, a doctor’s job should be to help their patient work toward achieving that life.