I met a young man recently in a setting having nothing to do with psychiatry or mental health. He politely introduced himself and tried to learn the names of the others around him. He seemed socially awkward but inoffensive, and after I left I didn’t give the encounter much thought. However, I learned that soon thereafter he showed increasingly odd behavior. He talked to himself, breached social boundaries, and acted aggressively for no apparent reason. Others had to keep an eye on him, and eventually he was escorted peacefully off the premises.
The possible causes of such behavior are myriad: brain injury, psychotropic drugs, medical illnesses such as delirium or thyroid disease, and many others. One possible cause is mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is surprisingly common, affecting over 1% of the total population. As with many other disorders, schizophrenia can be mild or severe. Only a small minority of sufferers are institutionalized; the great majority live in society with everyone else. The class of medications called neuroleptics (anti-psychotics) have helped to make this possible, although some people with mild schizophrenia can function without medication.
I do not know whether the young man I met has schizophrenia. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to diagnose someone I met only briefly in a social setting. But our meeting did spark some thoughts about the symptoms and deficits of this disorder.
A major hallmark of schizophrenia is auditory hallucinations (voices). When people “talk to themselves,” particularly if they do so without regard to others noticing, it may be in response to hallucinated voices. The voices can be ignored for a while if they are not too severe. At the other extreme, if insistent voices command the person to hurt himself or others, this is a very serious situation that usually requires hospitalization. Medications are often helpful in quieting auditory hallucinations.
(Thanks to cellphones, particularly those with wireless headsets, people seen “talking to themselves” could simply be on the phone. More than once I’ve passed someone on the sidewalk and assumed one of these scenarios, only to realize seconds later it was the other.)
Delusions are also prevalent in schizophrenia, as well as in other disorders such as delusional disorder and manic psychosis. Medications help with delusions too, but not as quickly as with hallucinations.
There are also “negative symptoms” in schizophrenia which include lack of emotional expression and a decreased ability to initiate action or speech. These are more resistant to medication, although the “atypical” neuroleptics available for the past 15 years are of some benefit.
More subtle are the “thought process” changes in schizophrenia, and these are what came to my mind regarding the young man I met. Classically, schizophrenic thought is described as concrete. The ability to think abstractly, metaphorically, and symbolically is impaired. For example, in psychiatric evaluations patients are sometimes asked to interpret a proverb such as, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” While most healthy individuals understand this is not literally about glass houses, many with schizophrenia will say something like, “because the glass will break.” Likewise, people with schizophrenia often cannot understand jokes or indirect references in the speech of others.
It is a sad and isolated existence to be cut off from so much human interaction, unable to share in common emotional experience. Much of the meaning and flavor of life is contained therein. This is not to say that people with schizophrenia cannot lead productive and meaningful lives. They can, but it’s hard. My “up close and personal” encounter with someone possibly suffering these challenges reminded me that compassion, not fear or disdain, is the most apt response to the tragedy of schizophrenia.