KQED’s three-part series on schizophrenia aired in the summer of 2014, with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.
Our goal was to explore ways that scientists are re-defining schizophrenia — a mental illness that affects just over 1 percent of the population — and new treatment approaches that are beginning to emerge, especially here in California.
This research took us across the country, from New York to San Diego, to meet pioneers in the field of “prodromal” early intervention. This is the controversial idea that schizophrenia may be prevented before its formal onset, in children as young as 10.
New York-based photographer Marvi Lacar came along for the Southern California reporting, capturing portraits of young people taking part in two such prevention programs.
The resulting radio story, the first in our series,“New Clinics in California Seek to Stop Schizophrenia Before it Starts,” aired on KQED-FM on July 28, and statewide on the California Report soon after.
A ‘Dementia That Hits Young People’
The next story introduced us to researchers who say psychiatry has focused too narrowly on schizophrenia’s most famous symptom: hallucinations and delusional beliefs. Perhaps, they argue, schizophrenia is more fundamentally a disease of basic brain functioning, a “dementia that hits young people.”
That belief gives rise to a new treatment approach using computer games to target nuts-and-bolts brain functions such as memory and comprehension. The second story in the series, “What Is Schizophrenia?” (8/4/14) begins at a clinical trial for one such game, where one participant drifts subtly in and out of delusion. “Would you like to see voices too?” he asks.
For a generation of neuroscience-oriented researchers, those kinds of delusions have been viewed as the meaningless (and usually harmful) byproducts of a diseased brain, something to be eradicated with anti-psychotic drugs. Now that notion is being questioned too.
Listening to the Voices
For some people living with schizophrenia, voices and delusions may not be the most problematic symptom, researchers told us. Some patients may actually benefit from paying attention to the content of their voices, possibly transforming them into an experience that is benign or even helpful.
We explore that idea in our third radio story, “What It’s Like to Hear Voices” (8/11/14). Online, we hear from voice-hearers about the complex relationships they’ve developed with their delusions and hallucinations. We meet one young man whose voices taunted and isolated him for years. But now that they’re mostly gone, he says he sometimes misses them.