University students with schizophrenia must be understood

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This morning I find myself forgetting where the sugar goes in a house I’ve lived in for years. I find myself putting the cereal box in the refrigerator. As I catch myself in these acts of innocence, I wonder if my brain will ever be the same after this most recent psychotic episode, which I only just emerged from like a submarine lost at sea. 

The cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, a rare mental disorder affecting only one percent of the U.S. population, include disorganized or slow thinking, difficulty understanding, poor concentration or memory and difficulty expressing or integrating thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

This morning I find myself mumbling, “I’m a bubble,” as I make my coffee, and as I do, I remember how hard I’ve worked over the last 10 years to suppress the most stereotypical symptoms of schizophrenia: the incoherent mumbling, the outbursts of laughter, the urge to talk back to the voices.

To pass or appear as high functioning, or as someone who is neurotypical, on a college campus is the hardest battle I’ve fought. 

At the beginning of my third year at UC Berkeley, I attended a therapy group with other students through University Health Services. I had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia after a four-day hospital visit and I would later withdraw from school after going off my medication. In the group, most of the students struggled with either major depressive disorder or clinical anxiety, but there was one boy who also had schizophrenia. I recognized him instantly as the boy I had passed many times on the street who talked loudly to himself. I had often crossed the street to avoid him. Now, I was sitting in a circle with him filling out a dialectical behavioral therapy worksheet about self-acceptance. 

It’s been nearly two years since I sat in that therapy group and a lot has changed. I’ve learned that I can be the picture of health, my delusions and hallucinations included. I’ve learned that I am so far from being alone in this illness. The onset of symptoms of schizophrenia usually occurs during college years (18-24 years old) and while the disorder remains rare, I have found connections with other schizophrenic students at UC Berkeley and on other college campuses throughout the country. I’ve learned that I am lucky to be viewed as “high-functioning” compared to my schizophrenic brothers and sisters stranded on the street and held in hospitals for indeterminate amounts of time. I’ve learned that it is a small step from the university campus to a 5150 hold in the hospital and that I am not exempt from the stigma surrounding my illness. 

My time at UC Berkeley has been peppered by illnesses and insecurities. It has included fighting for accommodations, taking trips to the Tang Center and missing classes or assignments due to my disorder. I’ll never forget the time I chose to disclose my illness to a professor who then responded with, “You talk very well for someone like that.” 

Amid the pandemic, the introduction of online classes has only added to the paranoia and symptoms for myself and other students I know who struggle with psychotic disorders. The disembodied Zoom voice, the feeling that you are being recorded, the constant suspicion that someone on the call is an FBI agent all add to my inability to attend class and focus on my studies. 

During my most recent hospitalization, I was nearly laughed at by a doctor when I claimed to be a student at UC Berkeley. He did not believe me until I showed him my student ID. It is microaggressions and misconceptions such as these that make me wonder if I will ever walk across that graduation stage. 

Forty-seven percent of people with schizophrenia drop out of college, which is almost double the national overall college dropout rate. I’ve left UC Berkeley twice now, but I am always able to come back because of support from family and doctors. But many students with psychotic disorders are not as lucky as me. 

And so here I am, a few days out of the hospital. Earlier this morning, I said out loud, “I’m a bubble,” and I felt myself shudder. I hear voices and put the cereal in the refrigerator, but I am healthy. This is an image of health that the world does not and may never approve of. 

When I was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 20 years old, I didn’t realize that I had been born into a world that would refuse to understand or know me. The need for empathy toward people with psychotic disorders on university campuses is more than important; it can be a critical difference between life and death for people like me. Schizophrenia, and illnesses like it, are linked to some of the highest rates of suicide. As a community with needs for extremely specific forms of care and support, we demand an academia that does the hard work to educate itself on psychotic disorders so that we might have a chance not only at survival but at greatness.

Zelda Dwyer is a UC Berkeley student diagnosed with schizophrenia.