THE BLOG
07/19/2012 04:32 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Jani Schofield: Born Schizophrenic in the U.S.A.

Whether one views President Obama's Affordable Care Act, upheld in a 5-4 opinion by the Supreme Court, as a tax, a penalty or a legitimate means of regulating interstate commerce, the landmark legislation will benefit people with pre-existing conditions, who will no longer be potentially barred from coverage by health insurers.

That is good news for everyone in this country, including people with severe mental-health disorders, which by their very nature tend to be pre-existing conditions.

Jani Schofield, who is about to turn 10, is one such person. Jani, who appeared on "Oprah" a few years ago, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of six. It is a disorder that she is going to have to deal with for the rest of her life.

I recently drove to Valencia, an hour or so north of Los Angeles, to visit Jani, whose parents say that she has an IQ of 146. Her father, Michael, a modestly built man who hails from Australia though he retains no accent, was heartened that the Affordable Care Act will "take away lifetime limits," because while schizophrenia can be tamed, it cannot be cured.

We bundled into the family SUV and drove to a summer school, where kids like Jani and her brother Bodhi, who may have autism, take special education classes.

That Jani was in school was a good sign in that the last time I interviewed her mother, Susan, in 2009, Jani was being home-schooled. At that time, the public school teachers had gotten fed up with Jani, viewing her as a brat, who took time away from the other kids with her tales of "imaginary" friends, friends that her parents insist are very real to Jani. She can evidently see them, such as a cat named Midnight who is sometimes under her bed. Midnight does not actually exist although the Schofields have plenty of pets in the house.

As I walked with Susan on the blacktop outside the school, we spotted Bodhi, a four-year-old tot with blond hair, who said very little as he raced over to greet his mom.

Once a week, Susan hosts an Internet radio program, "Bipolar Nation," on L.A. Talk Radio. That is a fitting title for her show as Susan, an attractive woman who has an ability to carry on conversations with multiple people simultaneously, told me that she has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She remained unsure about Bodhi's autism diagnosis.

When Bodhi raced over, his teacher noted that he was missing his backpack, so he ran back to her and she placed a blue rucksack around his tiny shoulders.

Then Susan said, "There's Jani." Walking along the blacktop was a svelte girl, who wore a floral dress with two straps and had stringy blond hair and blue eyes. We approached Jani, whose eyes were a bit lidded, though her mother told me that Jani sleeps well these days.

"I knocked down nine pins," Jani told her mother of her bowling prowess earlier in the day.

"What did you study today, Jani?" I asked.

"Crocodiles," she said. Then she rubbed her hands together feverishly as if she was holding twigs in them and was trying to create enough friction to start a fire. "Are you coming to Ronald McDonald's?" she said with a smile, inviting me to join her at the fast food restaurant for lunch. In the course of the next five minutes, as we chatted with other little girls, some of whom would be coming to Jani's birthday party in a few weeks, Jani repeated this brisk hand rubbing as well as the question about McDonald's numerous times.

At one point, Jani, who does not like her full name of January, stated with remarkable clarity, "I've come a long way."

Yes, she has.

For the past nine months, the entire family has been living in the same two-bedroom apartment. Prior to that, for a period of time, the family had two separate apartments to protect little Bodhi from Jani, who sometimes attacked him, thinking on occasion that he was bothering one of her friends, a rat that according to her parents was not so much a figment of her imagination, as it was a hallucination.

While many question whether or not children should be on psychotropic medication, the Schofields swear by it.

Due to Clozaril, lithium and Thorazine, all of which Jani takes, "the violence is pretty much gone," said Michael, who teaches writing at Cal State Northridge and who has written a memoir about Jani's illness, January First, which is set to be published in August, within a day of Jani's tenth birthday.

At a time when this country has an obesity epidemic among children, who sometimes now get Type 2 Diabetes, a rarity among kids in the past, we are also seeing a rise in the number of children with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, diagnoses that were almost unheard of as recently as 10 to 15 years ago.

Why has there been a surge in child-onset schizophrenia, which is still estimated to afflict only 1 in 40,000 children, compared to 1 in 100 adults?

Some believe it is because there is now a greater awareness about and tolerance for mental illness, an argument that suggests there is not a rise in the illness so much as a rise in diagnosis. Others believe that a combination of environmental and genetic factors could be leading to an increase in the condition.

Whatever the reason for the rise, Jani has experienced not only visual hallucinations; she has also apparently heard voices, including one that told her to jump out of a window.

After lunch at McDonald's in which she barely ate her sundae and French fries, and spent much of her time in the play area, a jungle gym, climbing to the second floor of a cage and hurtling down a slide, Jani told me that she wanted me to see her turtles and fish.

Unlike Midnight the cat, the turtles and fish are real. As is Jani's love for animals. Her parents told me that Jani wants to be a livestock veterinarian.

In their second-floor apartment, strewn with toys and clothes, Jani showed me her pets. She has two small aquariums for her betta fish and three tanks for her turtles. The tanks take up most of the floor in the room, and the gurgling noise of the water helps Jani sleep.

She took out one turtle to show me as I noticed a poster of rock group, Blink 182, on one wall. Jani is a fan of drummer Travis Barker and has shown little interest in teen sensation Justin Bieber, for instance. If her music taste is different from that of most of her peers, she, like many children, loves horses and has two photos of them above the fish tanks. Once a week, Jani rides a horse, engaging in equine therapy.

After she returned her turtle to the tank, she lay on her bed next to a copy of her favorite book, Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel. Showing insight into her illness that is unusual for someone her age, she said, "I hate being a schizophrenic."

I told Jani that I too was once diagnosed with schizophrenia. Though the diagnosis was probably incorrect, I told her that I still take anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medication and see a psychiatrist.

When I asked if Jani likes to read, Michael, who wrote in January First that his daughter was reading at a very young age, said that she "likes to be read to." I wondered if anyone had picked up on the all-too-obvious metaphor of the Bad Kitty as Jani herself seemed to be full of mischief.

When I said goodbye to her, Jani did not reciprocate, nor did she shake my hand, though I extended it to her. Somewhat reluctantly, she did, however, sign a copy of January First with a blue magic marker before flopping out on Bodhi's bed in the living room.