Schizophrenia is an earth-shattering disease that not only complicates the life of the sufferer, but the lives of those around the sufferer. Despite a history of working with early onset psychosis in children, I can only imagine just how much pain schizophrenia inflicts on families. My empathy is not enough to compensate for the occupational, psychological, emotional, physical, and social challenges that sufferers and families must cope with. For many families, the act of writing a book, speaking out, or volunteering becomes a passionate endeavor to open the heart and minds of society to a serious mental illness (SMI) that remains a highly stigmatized disorder.
That’s why Marjorie Baldwin wrote the book Beyond Schizophrenia: Living and Working with a Serious Mental Illness, to highlight her experience as an educator and labor economist who conducts research on work discrimination, as well as a mother of a son with schizophrenia. She explains the difficulty her son had pursuing a college education and employment with schizophrenia. For example, in chapter three, she explores the social stigma that her son experienced once released from a psychiatric hospital to return to college at the University of North Carolina.
Baldwin explains that her son became increasingly more withdrawn, isolated, and unmotivated following his release from the hospital and leading up to his re-enrollment in college. Her son is described as often feeling discouraged by his illness and social stigma. She reports “an aura of sadness surrounded him. One afternoon I found him lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling, with tears running down his face. When I asked what was wrong he said ‘my mind’s playing tricks on me again, mom.’”
As with any parent observing the stress of schizophrenia in their child’s life, Baldwin must have felt helpless, hopeless, and afraid. She does a good job in explaining the disorder, highlighting economic statistics, and drawing attention to the educational and occupational challenges that often occur in lives of those suffering with SMI. Sadly, it is apparent that Baldwin may have been biased in her perception and interpretation of the University of North Carolina’s actions.
While it is important to be mindful of how we perceive individuals with SMI, we also need to be mindful of how we ensure that our society (workplaces, schools, campuses, etc.) is safe. We must also be mindful of how to support and re-integrate into our society those who are struggling with SMI. Baldwin explains that the University of North Carolina held a meeting, consisting of faculty and administrators, to convene with the family on whether it was the right time for her son to re-enroll in classes and continue his college education. Most schools typically hold such meetings when a school has reason to question whether a student can safely be reintegrated back into the college culture. For many parents, this procedure is well-respected and appreciated, especially if the parent’s child is the one being protected by college administrators and faculty who have concerns around safety. But for Baldwin, this procedure seemed to emphasize stigma and make she and her son feel ostracized.
Thankfully there are colleges and organizations (e.g., Active Minds) across the nation that are dedicated to supporting those with SMI. Unfortunately, Baldwin may have neglected to look at the fact that it wasn’t just the college that had concerns about her son’s stability. Baldwin reports that she, too, had concerns about her son’s health and safety. She reports:
“I made excuses to travel to the Triangle area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) on a frequent basis, so I could visit David without saying I was “checking up” on him. I frequently stayed overnight, cleaned the apartment, and stocked the refrigerator with food. That fall he successfully completed two classes. After he completed four more in the spring, we began to think that he might graduate only one semester behind schedule. We did not realize that he had stopped taking his medication.”
It is apparent that Baldwin is a loving, caring and frustrated mother who strives to stand up for the rights of her son. But we must be careful, as passionate advocates, not to minimize a situation to make a point about social ostracism, politics, and stigma. Research suggests that individuals with SMI often forget or refuse to maintain appropriate medication management. Sufferers of SMI are sometimes incapable of protecting themselves, pursuing mental health or crisis services, living safely within the community, and providing for themselves, even when they want to.
As a result, college campuses, work sites, and other social places have the right to discuss the concerns around safety and SMI. In addition, it appears the book becomes less and less personal as Baldwin delves into discussing work-related discrimination and the need for various accommodations to support those wanting to return to the workforce or educational system. While facts related to these real issues are extraordinarily important, some readers may become disengaged as the exploration of economic disparity can be researched by Googling information as needed. Each chapter is structured to review pieces of the author’s own story and the educational and occupational letdowns and challenges of her son.
Even more, some readers may question the difference between this book and other books on schizophrenia and SMI. With so many books on the shelves of similar content, it can be difficult for writers to find their niche on a broad topic such as SMI, draw and maintain an audience of interested readers, and provide fresh information. Sadly, Baldwin is not the only mother who has written a book to share personal details and highlight barriers to equality. This book may fade into the background for readers who have already read thousands of similar books.
However, for a reader looking for a book (written by a passionate mother) that explains the occupational and social pressures inherent in the lives of those with SMI, this book is for them. For readers who are looking for real tools on how to overcome the social and occupational stressors of those living and working with SMI, this book might disappoint. Overall, Baldwin does a decent job of highlighting the accommodations that should be considered in the public and by businesses to help support those with SMI. Because it can be difficult for society to identify the occupational, educational, and social needs of those with SMI, we have writers like Baldwin who can impact society by bringing these issues to light.
Beyond Schizophrenia: Living and Working with a Serious Mental Illness
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, April 16, 2016
Hardcover, 256 pages