Growing up in India, I learned that mental illness was a taboo topic: Someone with a diagnosis was to be avoided, the matter was not to be discussed (unless in hushed whispers with the utmost of secrecy), and its effects on family members were to remain silent battles fought alone. I had been more optimistic coming to the United States for college, hoping that the quality and quantity of research and the awareness surrounding mental illness would have led to more informed acceptance. While the conversation about mental illness was leaps ahead of what I was used to, it is still bounds away from where it needs to be: The stigma associated with mental illness is ever-present, regardless of where on the globe one is exposed to it. It is what piqued my interest in psychology, what convinced me of its power to do good and what steered my attention toward the vast array of research that was rapidly changing everything we knew about mental illness.
Thus, before coming to UC Berkeley, I already knew that I wanted to get involved in research. What I didn’t know was just how lucky I was to end up at a college that not only explored the most diverse breadth of research imaginable, but also placed such high emphasis on student involvement in the same. Therefore, it is no surprise that I’ve thrown myself into this work ever since my sophomore year, when I started working as a research assistant at the Emotion and Social Interaction Laboratory, a clinical psychology lab at UC Berkeley headed by Ann Kring. I chose this lab because I wanted to get familiar with the current climate of research on schizophrenia — this interest being one that is close to my heart — and I’m fortunate to have found a lab and research team that foster my learning in such a supportive environment. More importantly, I’m excited about the potential implications of the kind of research we’ve been doing and what it means for our understanding of schizophrenia (and other debilitating mental illnesses) today.
There are a lot of misconceptions that come with schizophrenia, too many of which are the result of misrepresentation and ignorance. Often seen as one of the more extreme diagnoses of mental illness, schizophrenia is associated with “crazy” behaviors (for example: violence, extreme paranoia, psychosis and impaired social skills, among others). This label is not only insensitive to people grappling with the realities of the illness but also unfair to them because it discounts everything else that comes with it. While a basic fact check would inform us that these stereotypical presentations of schizophrenia actually only form a fraction of the diagnosed group, one of the most important things I’ve learned from the ESI lab is that it shouldn’t matter — by putting symptomology before humanity, we rob people with schizophrenia of an identity that could be defined by literally anything else about them. (Note: A shift in language from using the term “schizophrenic” to the phrase “person with schizophrenia” is a great shift in this direction.)
The research project I’ve been working on investigates social interaction in people with schizophrenia, specifically the potential barriers and motivators to interaction as well as how much pleasure these people actually get from engaging in those interactions. We do this using the words and subjective experiences of people with schizophrenia instead of a researcher’s objective observation, giving them the power to construct their own narratives while helping us understand the dynamics of their world. Part of why I love this project is that we’re challenging the idea that people with schizophrenia feel less pleasure than people without it, that they lack the desire to connect with and be a part of the social world. Older literature has constantly emphasized this difference between people with schizophrenia and “normal” people, but we’re turning away from those assumptions and trying to convince the world that people with schizophrenia are just as human as the rest of us — that they want to interact with the people around them, that they want close relationships and are motivated to pursue these things for the same reasons as anyone else. But another reason why this project is important is because it acknowledges and reaffirms the difficulties that come with having schizophrenia — the aforementioned stigma, rejection and the symptoms themselves that make it harder to actually have those social connections.
My greatest hope would be that the more strides we make in research in mental health, the more we come to a collective understanding that people with schizophrenia (or any other illness) are the same brand of human as anyone else. As someone who wants to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, yes, I am constantly appreciative of the invaluable skills the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program experience has taught me, but I’m most grateful for the way the ESI lab has changed my perception of mental illness and given me a personal stake in the future of schizophrenia research in the world of mental health.
Apoorva Polisetty is a campus junior majoring in psychology.