July 31, 1998|By KATE COLEMAN

Russell E. Weston Jr., the man charged in the recent shootings at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has been identified in news reports as having paranoid schizophrenia.

Two and a half million Americans have schizophrenia.

Most of these people don't exhibit the irrational fear of government agents and agencies and don't pick up guns, but such high profile incidents make headlines and serve to perpetuate the myth that people with schizophrenia are likely to be violent.

Continued from Lifestyle

The truth is that most violent crimes are not committed by people with schizophrenia, and most people with schizophrenia do not commit violent crimes, according to information on the Web site of National Institute of Mental Health.

Another myth is that schizophrenia is a "split personality." Multiple personality disorder is completely different from schizophrenia and is considered rare.


What is this condition that has been called the most chronic and disabling of the major mental illnesses?

Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder that makes it difficult for a person to know the difference between real and unreal experiences, to think logically, to have normal emotional responses to others and to behave normally in social situations, according to a brochure of National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

"There is no known single cause of schizophrenia," according to National Institute of Mental Health.

Experts generally agree that a vulnerability to the disorder may be inherited, and, given certain factors, that predisposition can lead to schizophrenia. It also is believed that some imbalance of the chemistry of the brain is associated with the condition.

Schizophrenia most commonly begins between the ages of 15 and 25. Men and women are affected equally, although symptoms may appear later in women than men.

The symptoms

Symptoms vary widely and can come on suddenly, although the illness usually evolves slowly over months or years. People with schizophrenia may feel tense, have trouble concentrating or sleeping. Psychotic symptoms develop and can include:

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> disordered thinking; which can result in the person talking nonsense, replacing words with sounds and rhymes;

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> delusions - false beliefs or thoughts with no basis in reality;

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> hallucinations - hearing, seeing or feeling things that don't exist.

Such behavior is frightening - frightening to the person with schizophrenia, frightening to his or her family and frightening to anyone with whom that person comes into contact.

"They act funny," says Kevin Smith, admissions specialist at Washington County Mental Health Center.

Bizarre behavior can lead to the person being ostracized - socially isolated, Smith adds.

A 27-year-old Hagerstown man with schizophrenia who doesn't want to be identified because of the stigma attached to his mental illness takes medication - one of the newer of the antipsychotic drugs - and exhibits none of the "bizarre" behavior typically associated with the disease.

Looking "fine," looking "normal" is the best thing about it for this high school graduate who likes movies and heavy metal music. He is a client at Turning Point of Washington County, a psychiatric rehabilitation program in Hagerstown, and has a part-time job in town.

The medication helps him, but having blood tests every other week to make sure it's at the right level is difficult. He also finds it hard to stay awake. A side effect of the drug is drowsiness.

Mike Shea, director of Behavioral Health Services of Washington County Health System, compares treating schizophrenia with treating diabetes or other lifelong diseases. It's a chronic, ongoing condition, and the person with schizophrenia will be in a physician's care the rest of his or her life. The dosage of medications needed to control the illness always will have to be adjusted. Some people with schizophrenia also benefit from counseling and rehabilitation.

Unlike people who are developmentally disabled or retarded, many people with schizophrenia know what they are missing. Symptoms can come and go; there can be clear and lucid times.

"It's tormenting," says Nansy Steinhorn, admissions coordinator at Washington County Mental Health Center in Hagerstown.

Connie Pauley is president of the Washington County affiliate of Alliance for the Mentally Ill, a volunteer organization that provides support to families and works to fight the stigma of mental illness. Her 34-year-old son has schizophrenia; he was diagnosed at 15.

Parents who have children with mental illness have to change their expectations for those children. It's difficult knowing that the person you raised is not the person you have here now, Pauley says.

"Mental illness is just not something people want to talk about," she says.

People with schizophrenia don't want to be this way, Pauley says. But it's something that could happen to anyone.

"We need so much understanding."

Mental health resources

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