For the past three decades, the message from doctors to people with serious mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, was grim: You can take medication to reduce symptoms, but you shouldn’t expect to have much of a life, and you will probably never have a partner. Very bright patients were told that despite their intelligence, the most they could aspire to was a menial job. All of that is changing. “Mental-health experts used to be far too pessimistic about people’s ability to recover because they were focused solely on getting rid of symptoms such as hallucinations,” says Stephen R. Marder, MD, professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Now the medical community is more aware that people can have residual symptoms and still lead rich, meaningful lives.”
Marder and several colleagues are studying 20 high-functioning people with schizophrenia, including a doctor, a psychologist and a CEO. Their research has found that those who thrive share certain traits. “The thrivers understand their symptoms and have adopted techniques to keep symptoms from interfering with their lives,” says Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law who has schizophrenia. One such technique is for a schizophrenic to stay on track by playing loud music to drown out imaginary voices. “Mental illness,” Saks concludes, “doesn’t have to consign you to a life on the fringes.”
Meet three women who walked through the darkness of mental illness for years but came out on the other side, thanks to personal determination and the right professional help.
Dana Parker-Mathis, 44
Mental-health outreach specialist, Birmingham, Michigan. She has a form of schizophrenia.
Dana Parker-Mathis had always been emotionally fragile. “I took everything way too personally, so I had trouble maintaining close relationships,” she recalls. A psychiatrist had diagnosed bipolar disorder and put her on Depakote, an antiseizure drug, and Zoloft, an antidepressant that affects serotonin levels. But the treatment did not provide much help as she went through a major crisis: a 1999 divorce that left her a single mother with a toddler son.
Almost immediately after the split, her mental state took a scarier turn. “I started having thoughts that I was created for a special purpose, to do something great, and I looked for signs everywhere telling me what I was supposed to do,” recalls Parker-Mathis, who was then working in the recruiting office of the University of Maryland. In her mind, colors held special significance. Green meant she needed to grow up, orange indicated she should quit smoking, and purple represented her mother. “I thought I had a special skill—a gift for interpreting messages from the universe,” she says. “It was both exhilarating and exhausting. I’d drive miles out of my way to chase a truck that I thought had a special message for me.” She also believed that people were out to get her and her son, Zachary (now 17), and felt certain her car was bugged and had hidden cameras.
One day in 2002, Parker-Mathis took Zachary to the park and saw a car with its keys in the ignition. “I thought my family, who lived in Michigan, had left the car for me so I could escape from the people watching me. I strapped Zachary in and pulled away from the curb,” she says. “As I drove, I saw this guy running alongside me. He was screaming, ‘Stop! You’re stealing my car!’ ” She pulled over, and when the man saw her face, he said, “Dana?”
“I didn’t know him, but he recognized me because I’d been the first runner-up for Miss Black University of Maryland several years before,” she says. “I told him, ‘Something’s wrong with me,’ and he put me in my car—which I’d driven to the park—and followed me home.”