It’s a beautiful mind: Schizophrenic experience leads man to medicine
Source: The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon
When Dr. Daniel Fisher was 25, his mind suddenly became a railroad car leaving the track.
In 1969, the Princeton graduate, with a Ph.D. in biochemistry, experienced several days of “frightening imaginings,” then retreated to a place deep within himself. His doctor diagnosed schizophrenia.
“It’s like you’re are living life without a gyroscope,” he said. “I had no idea of what made sense for me.”
In the next couple of years, he spent time in two hospitals’ psychiatric wards, an experience that made him feel powerless and less than human. While in seclusion at Bethesda Naval Hospital, he decided to jettison his biochemist career and become a psychiatrist.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to change the system and see that people are not treated like animals,’ ” Fisher said.
Fisher’s remarks came during a weeklong conference for people who have experienced serious psychological illnesses. Participants traveled from around the state to attend the Boardman conference.
Fisher made good on his vow. He completed medical school, became a psychiatrist, was selected as a member of the White House Commission on Mental Health and is executive director of the National Empowerment Center, a resource center for psychiatric patients.
Fisher, who is fully recovered, travels around the world busting myths and urging different ways of looking at and treating psychiatric conditions. The present system of hospitals and medication isn’t working, Fisher said. Traditional treatments only manage symptoms and don’t help people get their lives back.
Hospitalization and medication aren’t the most valuable tools in the box, he said, and might even cause damage.
“There’s never been any evidence that hospitalization is a good thing to do,” he said. “It’s possible medication and hospitalization may prolong illness.”
Fisher said his hospitalization at the Bethesda Naval Academy as akin to being imprisoned. Workers held him down and injected him with drugs. He also spent time in isolation.
“It was a prison within a prison,” he said. “It was supposed to calm me down, but it made me angrier and angrier.”
FIsher said there are better ways to help people recover from psychiatric conditions. He said the power of human interaction is more powerful than institutional techniques. He advocated peer counseling and therapy using more human methods.
Fisher said many people wrongly believe the cause of severe mental illness is chemical.
“I haven’t taken medication in 30 years,” he said. “It’s not primarily biological.”
The American mental health system would do well to study other cultures, Fisher said. In remote areas of New Guinea, for example, long-term mental illness is almost unknown.
As a rule, he said, the less-developed countries of the world seem to have less long-term mental illness. Where westerners tend to hospitalize and medicate, a person in Ghana would receive extra love and attention.
“Love him and he’ll come back,” Fisher said. “People are the most important ingredient in people’s recovery.”
He attributes his own recovery to caring therapists, friends and sharing experiences with others who’ve been there. Peer-to-peer contact was the idea behind this week’s conference in Boardman.
“It’s bridging the gap between survivors and medical professionals,” said Kimberly Lindsay, executive director of Morrow-Wheeler Behavioral Health. “It allows the consumers to share their stories.”
One motivation for Fisher is convincing people with long-term psychiatric conditions they can fully recover.
“If you don’t believe you can live a full life,” he said, “you are still in an institution of your own mind.”