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Learning to See Discrimination

04/12/2013 10:48 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT

Being discriminated against for having a mental illness is a terrible thing, but -- as the one being stigmatized -- is it better to be aware of the prejudice or to be ignorant?

I had little choice. My schizophrenia came with a heavy dose of social deficits, including those that detect discrimination. When asked about being stigmatized, I was often at a loss of what to say. I didn't see subtle unfairness. I couldn't put together a prejudiced tone of voice, a biased body language, an intolerant reception. I was almost childlike and took everything at face value.

When ill, I feel persecuted everywhere, by everyone. That stems from my schizophrenia's paranoia; everyone is against me. My status as the Chosen One in my delusional world of the Deep Meaning tells me that anyone could be in league with the Enemy. But I do not see this as discrimination. I see it as part of the Deep Meaning, a destiny offered to me. I feel like a martyr; misunderstood, but treated in a way that feels like ignorance, not bias.

As I learn to recognize discrimination, I ironically see it most often, and most powerful, in the hospitals in which I have been certified. In there, in the "system," I am summed up in my charts, which are reviewed before the nurses and psychiatrists actually see me. My diagnosis goes both before me and remains a trail behind.

Once, as I was being forcefully restrained by security at the hospital, being readied for needles full of antipsychotics and sedatives, I was as usual hysterical and fighting. Screaming, I felt such terror that the medication they injected in my thigh contained microscopic rats that would then eat my brain (a schizophrenic delusion of mine). A student happened by, stopped, stared, and said, "Oh, can I watch? I've never seen one of these before."

"One of these."? Even socially challenged, terrified me could hear the blatant stigma. Am I a show, a case, a showcase: This is how to deal with an aggressive, psychotic patient?

"One of these."?

Simply one example in the world of mental health care in which as much as nearly one in three workers discriminate on hospital wards, as recently reported by The Guardian (UK edition) . This is almost twice that of the general population (16.1 per cent). I guess my social deficits are receding if I can see those statistics in action (that is, greater stigma in hospital).

Then, due to my budding social senses and the obtaining of a job, I wonder about discrimination that can masquerade as a "poor fit" for a job. In my case, my memory can fail me at times, and I was working in a science lab for only two months before my supervisor said that she was "letting me go" because of this. Was it simply the need for a more competent technician, or was it a good way to get rid of me? We go out of our way to accommodate those with physical disabilities. Why then an unwillingness to accommodate mental disabilities?

To its credit, my employer put me on medical leave for the remainder of our contract (one year) and Human Resources was to assist me in finding another job in the institution (a university). My psychiatrist was consulted and a memo of my deficits and needs were decided. For example, it was written that I cannot work full-time and need extra training. Now, I have found my ideal job advertised -- full-time. But a full-time job is not allowed, now, according to HR. I had to plead my case with my psychiatrist, who finally wrote that I could, in fact, work full-time. Still, I hear doubt from HR that I, with a Master's degree in Neuroscience, should not aspire to a job in my field other than a reduced-hours job of washing cages.

When I send out resumes or go to interviews, I wonder whether I should include what is possibly one of my greatest strengths: I have written, and been involved in the editing of, my memoir. "When Quietness Came: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey With Schizophrenia" was published last year, showing my skills in writing and ability to see a complex, demanding project from infancy to completion. I have decided to go with it.

So do I remain in childlike ignorance or try to join the fight against discrimination of people who live with mental illness? Do I really want to see those one-in-three professionals, the one-in-six public? I am not always sure.

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Interested in more of my story? My memoir "When Quietness Came: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey With Schizophrenia" is available on Amazon.

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