No one cares about crazy people

I’m reading No one cares about crazy people by Ron Powers. Both his sons developed schizophrenia, and one of them committed suicide in the basement a week before his 21st birthday. Powers’s advice is to assume the worst when symptoms occur. Act quickly. It is good advice. The suicide risk in schizophrenia is through the roof. According to this study, 5-13% of people with schizophrenia die from suicide, and it’s likely tipping towards the higher end. Only transgender individuals are more likely to take their own lives.

Powers draws a parallel between schizophrenia and Julian Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind. It’s interesting but controversial. Jaynes claims that the human brain existed in a bicameral state until as recently as 3000 years ago. Before Homer’s Iliad, humans did not have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as we experience it today. Instead, the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands issued by external Gods. The voices came from the right brain counterpart of left-brain language centers, regions that are somewhat dormant in modern humans. Without a consensus on the cause of schizophrenia, Jaynes argues that the disease is a vestige of humanity’s earlier bicameral state. 

Another interesting reference is to The Myth of Mental Illness, written by Thomas Szasz in 1961. Szasz criticized psychiatry as pseudo-scientific and argued against mental illness, finding the definition vague and unsatisfactory. In 1969 he came together with the Church of Scientology to create the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, which aimed to eradicate abuses under the guise of mental health.

So, does anyone care about crazy people? We do not like to talk about brain injury compared to cancer. Powers takes a grim view when he points to American prisons where many mentally ill people live under conditions of atrocity. The book leaves a lot of food for thought. Both on how we dealt with mental illness in the past and the problems we’re facing today. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the history of schizophrenia, which is full of fascinating stories. Some are less cheerful than others. 

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