CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

October 24, 2002 Schizophrenic psychologist dispels myths



by Sylvain Comeau

“Dr. Frese, are you insane?” That was the first question psychologist Frederick Frese was asked when he appeared on ABC’s Nightline recently.

“I said I was declared insane and committed to a public hospital. That was a long time ago, and while it’s true they didn’t give me a certificate restoring me to sanity, I’ve always thought that was just an oversight.”

Frese, a psychologist, paranoid schizophrenic and living proof that the disability can be overcome, delivered the annual Hans-Low Beer lecture on Sept. 25. He was indeed locked up in an Ohio mental hospital 30 years ago after suffering a mental breakdown in which he was trapped by paranoid delusions. Twelve years later, he had become the chief psychologist for that same hospital.

The ‘split brain’

Frese, who is vice-president for National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and director of the Summit County (Ohio) Recovery Project, educated the audience about the condition he lives with, while entertaining with quirky, sometimes self-deprecating humour, and an eccentric delivery. “Wow, with introductions like that, I’m kinda looking forward to hearing this guy myself,” Frese quipped after a series of glowing intros.

Frese rejects politically correct language, referring to his condition as a disability and disease, and contrasting the brains of schizophrenics to those of “normal” people. At the same time, he shows by example that the condition does not have to hold someone back, even if it can be a bit disconcerting to his patient: “There are always doubters; having a sometimes psychotic psychologist speak to you can make some people wonder.”

Frese dispelled myths about mental illness, particularly mocking his own profession’s reliance on a classic scapegoat: mothers.

“Let’s have a revolution in psychiatry, and stop blaming the families for mental illness. It’s time to put the blame where it belongs: on the brain — schizophrenia means ‘split brain.’ Where does the break occur? In the synapses.”

Synapses are neuronal connections in the brain. Frese explained that while we have relatively few of these at birth, in childhood they rapidly multiply, reaching a peak at age 12. “By adulthood, you have lost a third of them, if you’re normal. Schizophrenics lose many more, and since Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, the brain tries to fill in the gap by creating new connections. The result is that schizophrenics are much more sensitive than normal people. It’s as if we had a pair of antennae attuned to the world.”

This heightened sensitivity leads to overstimulation and non-rational thinking coupled with paranoia. Schizophrenics are more likely to believe in mysticism, UFOs, astrology and the like, and on a personal level — the UFOs may be coming to abduct them. Because of their heightened awareness, small details become weighted with significance, dripping with portent.

“There are seven women in the audience wearing red,” Frese said with mock suspicion. “You know what that means.”

Frese’s illness is controlled partially by drugs, which, he noted, have vastly improved since he was first diagnosed, and partially by will. He says that despite the potential devastation of this degenerative illness, “there has never been a better time to be a schizophrenic. Some very promising new treatments are coming.”

However, he sees drug therapies as only half the battle. He quoted from a recent paper he co-wrote, on ways of integrating evidence-based practices (medical treatments) and the recovery model (self-reliance).

“People need help, but as they improve, the hope is that they will become responsible for themselves, and tell the doctors to get lost.”

Frese earned a standing ovation for his lecture, which was presented by AMI-Quebec and the Department of Psychology.