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Gray Lady Is of Two Minds on Schizophrenia

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In the Dorff-Nelson Chapel at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, Frank Baron bent forward, his hands trembling a bit as he held onto the wooden barriers between pews. Had he been wearing a tallis, a blue and white shawl, one might have thought that he was davening in prayer. As it turned out, Baron did have his Bar Mitzvah in this synagogue roughly 40 years ago. But on this day, last April, Baron, 52, was not reading from the Torah; instead, he was telling the story of his life that has been dominated the past two decades by a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Baron, who was at the synagogue to attend a conference sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for the Westside of Los Angeles, served in the Peace Corps in Yemen when, he noted, that country was not engulfed in civil war. He was also a veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he was based in many exotic locales, including the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

Despite his adventures overseas, Baron, a supremely modest man, was quick to point out that he served in peacetime, not in combat. He also pointed out that he does not suffer from depression or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as an estimated 300,000 veterans do, according to a 2008 Rand study.

Baron came by his schizophrenia genetically. His maternal grandmother had the illness.

At the time that he was first diagnosed with the disorder, he feared that he might be labeled a violent criminal.

It was understandable that he feared such labeling, given the misinformed views that exist to this day, even to an extent on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, leading me to wonder, Et tu, Gray Lady?

In the Dec. 26 issue of the Times, Paul Steinberg, a practicing psychiatrist, declared in an op-ed that schizophrenics, "treated or untreated," are "more likely than others to commit violent crimes."

That may be true of untreated schizophrenics, primarily because they misread situations, as Frank Baron once did years ago when he said that he was "out of his mind"; he took a swing at and thankfully missed a police officer, the only time he has ever been remotely violent in his life. When treated, however, schizophrenics and others with severe mental illness are no more likely to commit violent acts than those who are not mentally ill, as studies show.

Two days after Steinberg's column, David Brooks offered his Sidney Award imprimatur to a piece in The Wilson Quarterly that suggested that the models for treating schizophrenia in this country have "failed." No doubt he had on his mind some of the recent mass killings that have been blamed partly on our mental health system. But it is important for those suffering from schizophrenia and for their families to know that people can get better.

I am glad that Brooks hailed India's approach to mental illness, which evidently involves less stigma than ours, but he might look to some of the success stories in this country as well. Many schizophrenics in the U.S., like Frank Baron, function at a relatively high level.

Then, in the Dec. 29 edition of the paper of record, Times columnist Joe Nocera, in a seeming attempt to take a middle ground in the debate about gun control and mental health, maligned all of us who suffer from mental illness by stating that "anyone who goes into a school with a semiautomatic and kills 20 children and six adults is, by definition, mentally ill."

I would have to disagree. While it may be true that Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Conn., was autistic or had Asperger's Syndrome, those who plan murderous rampages for which they show no remorse evidence the tell-tale signs of psychopathy, not necessarily mental illness. As I have written before at length, most mass murderers live, like Iago, according to a code of hatred and sadism, rather than in a world of psychosis.

If Nocera and the other op-ed writers for the Times don't believe me, they might look to their own colleague, Dr. Richard A. Friedman, who wrote in the Health section of the Science Times on Dec. 18 that "the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force."

He added that it may "make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence" to those with a severe mental disorder.

Friedman was suggesting, as I have in the past, that we all have the capacity to do good or evil. This has been true since the beginning of time or the Fall of Man, depending on your perspective. In any event, most people who commit violent or criminal acts are not mentally ill at all; they simply embody the dark side of the human condition, a point I have made numerous times before.

As for Frank Baron, he remains in therapy and takes clozapine to treat his schizophrenia. As I wrote last year, he is one of the few consumers on the L.A. County Mental Health Commission, an honor bestowed on him by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Baron has also taught the Peer-to-Peer class, one of NAMI's signature courses taught and attended by individuals with a diagnosis. In the fall of 2010, Baron served as a Peer-to-Peer mentor to me and my wife, Barbara.

As the interview last April wound down, Baron, who had been looking at the synagogue floor much of the time, started to make more eye contact with me and called Barbara "sweetie."

Baron is one of the bravest human beings I know, someone who continues to overcome not only a severe mental disorder but also the stigma against mental illness that sadly exists even amongst some of our pundits.

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