Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. It has been observed by presidential proclamation each year since 1949. Nearly 44 million American adults and millions of children experience mental health conditions each year. The cost to individuals and their families cannot be calculated. The stigma of mental illness prevents timely evaluation, causes shame, increases alcohol and drug abuse, and can result in loss of life. This one month of Mental Health Awareness helps to increase education, focus on cause and treatment, and encourages evaluation of those with symptoms that can be associated with mental illness.

Dr. Megan Riddle has written a post each Monday this month that has focused on some aspect of mental health.  She began with mental wellness, followed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, then bipolar illness last week.

This week Dr. Riddle finishes our month of Medical Monday posts on Mental Health Awareness with schizophrenia, a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. People with schizophrenia may seem as if they have lost touch with reality. Although schizophrenia is not as common as other mental disorders, the symptoms can be very disabling, affecting both these patients and their families for all of their lives.

When I was in college I worked at a private psychiatric hospital on the locked ward for women.  I was a psychology major and had many years of experience as a nurse’s aide before beginning this job.  Many of the patients I worked with on this ward had schizophrenia diagnoses.  These women were often in their 20s and 30s, and many were in this locked ward for their first hospitalization after repeated attempts to diagnose and control behaviors in the community setting.

The memory of a particular woman still affects me. She was a Vietnamese war bride whose husband had brought her to our hospital for involuntary hospitalization after she had repeatedly accosted young women near the Army base where they lived.  After the medication provided some control for the delusional thinking, she was able to explain that she believed (even with medication) that she had to take the facial image from an American woman so that she could have a “face like everyone else.”  She tore photos of beautiful young women from magazines, then rubbed the images across her face. Whenever she saw me, she greeted me by rubbing her hands over my face, “replacing her face with my face.” Of course, she had suffered unbearable traumas as a war bride from Vietnam. But her inability to distinguish reality from delusion, to prevent hallucinations followed by almost catatonic states provided enough evidence for her diagnosis. Over many months of medication and therapy, she was eventually able to leave the hospital but was never able to return to her marriage and home. She lived in a halfway house and had repeated re-admissions over the course of my three years of work there. The manifestations of her illness were truly heartbreaking.

Schizophrenia is thought to result from genetic, environmental and perhaps intrauterine traumas.  Since we don’t know the cause of this severe mental illness, it has been so very difficult to find medical treatment that is either effective or that patients are willing to take for life.  

I carry the memories of the women who were on 3 North with me still. My experience on this ward changed my approach to patient care long before I became a doctor. I learned to listen without judgment, to be supportive and to respect that the world that each of those patients inhabited was her reality.

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  • Barbara Thornbrough May 26, 2016 at 11:45 am

    What a srart to a medical career sobering to say the least. Thanks for sharing this. Bt