Little is known about schizophrenia, even today. There is so much misinformation about this kind of mental distress, it is no wonder that many people find it confusing and even frightening. In this podcast (episode #210) and blog, I speak with NY Times best-selling author and journalist Bob Kolker about his new book, Hidden Valley Road, and the extraordinary story of the Galvin family and their six sons who were diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1960s/1970s. We also discss why so little is known about this type of mental ill-health, past and current treatment options, how to change the narrative around schizophrenia and mental health, and more!
As Bob notes in Hidden Valley Road, the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health. Their story offers a shadow history of the science of schizophrenia, from the era of institutionalization, lobotomy, and the schizophrenogenic mother to the search for genetic markers for the disease. The Galvin family story has provided researchers with a lot of valuable information regarding the genes associated with schizophrenia and the nature versus nurture debate, even though there is still so much to learn. They have helped science move forward tremendously, and there have been major breakthroughs from just studying this family’s turbulent history, such as understanding the importance of early intervention.
Their story shows us that, when it comes to schizophrenia, we need to go beyond the nature versus nurture debate and understand the incredible complexity of the symptoms associated with this type of mental distress. We need to avoid neuroreductionism, where we focus too much on one cause or point of origin, and consider the wide range of factors associated with the onset of schizophrenia. The human mind is incredibly unique and complex; we need to acknowledge this complexity and pay attention to people’s life narratives.
Indeed, one of the most common misconceptions we have concerning schizophrenia is that it is an “it”. <- I don’t understand what that means Schizophrenia is not like other mental illnesses. There have been no advances or innovations in recent decades, and the drugs that are prescribed are symptom suppressors, not cures. These drugs don’t turn back the clock for patients; they just make people’s symptoms more manageable.
There is a lot of disagreement over what schizophrenia is exactly. It is not a specific disease; rather, it is a name we give to a lot of different symptoms, and its definintion changes from generation to generation. It could even be a symptom of another issue or medical condition, like a fever may be a symptom of many kinds of problems. There is a lot of trial and error associated with this kind of mental distress, and family support is often necessary because each case is so complicated. Indeed, we need to be careful that we don’t ask the wrong questions by trying to simplify it too much or categorize it in a certain way, as it is a very complicated type of mental ill-health.
However, there is reason to hope. Although Hidden Valley Road and the story of the Galvin family shows us that the issue of schizophrenia is far from solved, it also points out that it is not hopeless. We now understand a lot more about this kind of mental distress, such as the importance of early intervention and preventative care, and we are learning more and more every day!
This extraordinary story highlights the importance of teaching children from a young age about how to manage their mental health. If we address vulnerabilities early, we can better deal with the vicissitudes of life by building in resilience and mental strength through neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change and adapt). Recent research based on the Galvin family has indicated that our genes are blueprints for what can happen. We inherit certain vulnerabilities, not necessarily a disease, which can be triggered by life events. Therefore, early intervention is key: we need to find ways to make individuals less vulnerable to their genetic predispositions by shoring up and strengthening the brain’s resilience during childhood.
For more on mental health, schizophrenia and the Galvin family, listen to my podcast with Bob (episode #210), and check out his book, Hidden Valley Road. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
*This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.
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4:00 Why are we so afraid of schizophrenia?
11:10 Schizophrenia: nature vs. nurture?
12:22 Common misconceptions & myths about schizophrenia
20:10 Why we need to see mental ill-health not as a diseases that need to be solved, but about stories that need to be heard and understood
25:47 The extraordinary story of the Galvins and how the stigma associated with mental ill-health can affect families for generations
35:40 How the story of the Galvin family transformed the way we understand mental health struggles, especially schizophrenia
46:25 How mental health can affect the whole family, and where we are currently with the treatment of schizophrenia
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