An independent documentary is seeking to eradicate the stereotypes often associated with schizophrenia. The short film, “Living With Schizophrenia: A Call for Hope and Recovery,” features three adults living with the illness who share their struggles and personal stories of triumph and recovery.
Funded and produced by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the film was released in 2011 and is being screened in select cities. This week, the film was screened in New York City at Benjamin Steakhouse.
Schizophrenia, which is a complex brain disorder that can affect the ability to think clearly, manage feelings and make decisions, affects as many as 3 million Americans. The disorder first appears between the late teens and mid-30s, usually in young adulthood during the most stressful stages in life, like college.
One young adult featured in the film is Ashley Smith, 25, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was 20. The events leading up to her diagnosis were frightening. After dropping out of college after experiencing an insurmountable amount of stress, Smith moved from her home in Atlanta to San Diego.
During this time, she said, she heard voices in her head, usually laughing at her. At one point she thought the voices in her head were manifestations from God. Soon afterward, Smith decided to quit her job and cashed her last paycheck to buy a plane ticket back to Atlanta. When she arrived at the airport, she saw a parked truck with the keys still in the ignition.
“I got in the truck thinking this was a message from God and my way to get back to Atlanta,” Smith told the AmNews.
Smith took off with the truck, leading to a high-speed police chase that ended in her crashing into a building. Smith came out of the accident unscathed; however, she was sent to jail and later a state hospital for five months, where she was diagnosed. Smith said she knew nothing about schizophrenia at the time except for symptoms she had read about in high school. However, she said, there had been no mention then of recovery.
Through treatment, Smith learned that not only could her illness be treated, it could be managed.
The film focuses on accurate depictions of people living with schizophrenia; they are working-class members of society who live their lives just as independently as those living without the illness.
Smith, for example, is shown in the film instructing a peer-mentoring program for people living with schizophrenia. In one clip she is even playing a game of Scrabble with her friend. In the film, Smith doesn’t appear sick at all.
“There are a few myths that stick out to me, such as that all people with schizophrenia are violent and that there is no hope,” Smith said.
“That’s not the case with new technology and new medications.”
Smith said she takes medication once a day and, on occasion, when she experiences setbacks, she speaks with her therapist. She hasn’t heard voices in over five years.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Xavier Amador, who is also featured in the film, said that the key to living with schizophrenia successfully is treatment. He characterized the documentary as a “powerful slice of truth we don’t get to see.”
Amador, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College and a highly sought-after expert, said that treating schizophrenia is personal for him because his brother struggled with the illness. Before introducing the film at the New York screening, Amador pointed out that stories like Smith’s and those of the other two participants are rarely told in the media, referencing a study that found that over 80 percent of media portrayals of schizophrenia patients were as violent, suicidal and aggressive.
“Do I look dangerous to you?” Smith asked with humor.
Smith said she would like to be a poster child for schizophrenia in the Black community.
“I want to show others that this illness is affecting diverse communities,” she said. Smith pointed out that in the African-American community, people tend to think they can pray the illness away.
“They think your faith isn’t intact or you may be possessed with demonic spirits. I hope that church members and the African-American community will see that this is a medical concern that needs to be addressed and that it can be overcome with consistent treatment, support and education.”
Smith is now on the Georgia board of directors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where she serves as a program trainer. She also started her own nonprofit organization, Embracing My Mind, in 2009. Smith says her community work, as well as blogging, not only helps her with her own recovery but gives her a platform to help others like her.
“I share my story to let people know what schizophrenia is, that you don’t have to fear it,” Smith said. “You can cope with it. It is difficult, but it can be managed.”
For information on “Living With Schizophrenia: A Call for Hope and Recovery,” visit www.choicesinrecovery.com. To learn more about Smith’s nonprofit organization, visit www.embracingmymind.org.