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Bad literary advice from Carolyn Kaufman, The Writer's Guide to Psychology

Posted Aug 08 2012 12:00am 1 Comment
Psychology Q&A: Schizophrenia & Police Work?
I belong to an writers group called Query Tracker. Occasionally I receive e-mails from "experts" in specific topics of interest to writers. This one makes me throw up my hands. Carolyn Kaufman trots out all the stereotypes and the recovery movement seems to have completely passed her by.



Psychology Q&A: Schizophrenia & Police Work?
Posted: 08 Aug 2012 06:00 AM PDT
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is intended for writing purposes only and does not represent psychological advice.
QUESTION: I keep returning to schizophrenia as an interesting disorder. I'm wondering what exactly can someone who's schizophrenic (and on his medications) do for a living? Can they be a detective or a police officer? Or is there a better disorder for me to use that would allow them to be a detective or a police officer? I wasn't sure if schizophrenia would keep them from being employed as such. Also,  is there a positive side to the schizophrenia -- a creativity or something along those lines that could be harnessed in the right situations? Finally, what type of inner conflict would someone with schizophrenia have to overcome in order to be successful?
ANSWER: Schizophrenia is really one of the most disabling psychological disorders someone can have -- only about a third of people with the disorder are able to live independently. By definition,  schizophrenia  is a psychotic disorder, which means that the person who has it isn't in touch with reality as other people experience it. Symptoms of psychosis include
    Hallucinations: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, or tasting things that aren't there; the most common hallucinations in people with schizophrenia are voices Delusions: believing things that aren't based in reality despite all evidence and logic to the contrary Disorganization: this doesn't mean the person is messy; it means their mind is disorganized. This leads to disorganized speech (which means  means that people wander from topic to topic enough that it's noticeably weird; in extreme cases you get a "word salad," which means the words are all just jumbled up) and disorganized behavior (which may be silly, childlike, or aggressive, but is always completely purposeless)

People with schizophrenia can be articulate and intelligent --  John Nash , the man on which  was based, is well-spoken and obviously extremely well educated. But he does see and hear things, and he has delusions.

Nonetheless, I think it would be very unusual for someone with schizophrenia to be able to be a detective or a police officer, even if he were taking medications. The meds can often suppress the psychotic symptoms, but that doesn't mean the schizophrenia goes away. And the meds tend to work better for what we call "positive" symptoms (like hallucinations, delusions, and disorganization) than they do for "negative" symptoms like catatonia, apathy, mutism, failing hygiene, and other tendencies to withdraw from society.

However, someone who has bipolar disorder (which used to be called manic depression) could be, assuming they'd never been institutionalized.  Like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder that can be crippling, and for some people it can also involve hallucinations and delusions, particularly during a manic phase.

I know that you can't get into the CIA or FBI if you have a history of mental illness of any sort, or have been to therapy for a psychological problem. Though I doubt the police are quite as stringent, they're still on the lookout for these kinds of disorders. So it would probably need to be something that hasn't officially been diagnosed.

Martin Riggs -- Mel Gibson's character from the  movies -- comes to mind. He's a great example of a great character who went a little (ok, a lot) crazy and was still a police officer.  If you're not familiar with the movies, Riggs's wife dies, and  he gets crazy suicidal , which makes him a complete loose cannon. If I had to diagnose Riggs off the top of my head in the first movie, I'd say a major depressive disorder, last (current) episode severe.

While some people have begun arguing that people on the schizotypy spectrum (of which schizophrenia is a part) are more creative than others, that creativity is often so different from the way other people think that it may not been seen as creativity...just as weirdness. People with bipolar disorder have , though. They tend to be creative within the "rules" of society -- that is, their stuff looks creative, not just bizarre, to other people.

There isn't really an inner conflict someone with schizophrenia has to overcome -- it's very much a biological disorder. So is bipolar disorder, though the person with bipolar disorder may not seem quite as bizarre, and may function more within the norms of society.

Also remember that with any disorder there's a continuum from "not bad" to "really bad" versions of the disorder. So some people will have any given disorder worse than others, based on the genetics and how stressful their environment has been throughout their lives. Less severe cases may respond better to medications and therapy.


Remember, if YOU have a psychology in fiction question you want to see answered here, use the  Q&A form on my Archetype site  or send an email using my QueryTracker email address to the right. (Please use Q&A in your Subject Line!). 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, : How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can  learn more  about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's  blog on Psychology Today , or follow her on  Facebook  or  Google+
If your email address changes, please follow these instructions: 1. Scroll down to the bottom of an email from the QTB and click UNSUBSCRIBE to remove your old email addy from the database. Then 2. Go to  http://querytracker.blogspot. com/  and SUBSCRIBE (on the right-hand side, in the sidebar) with your new address!
Comments (1)
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Hi Rosa -- You disagree with the article, which is fine, but could you please describe how to make the information more accurate? Right now you're complaining without actually educating anyone about what's wrong, and that doesn't allow for change. It's also a shame you didn't address the author directly with an email, or in the comments of the post -- authors often welcome input, and are many times open to correcting mistakes they've made. I'm not sure why, if you were so frustrated, you didn't try to engage in an educational conversation and instead simply threw up your hands and posted something that doesn't help anyone understand schizophrenia better? I understand that you were frustrated, but frustration without a desire to engage in positive change serves little purpose.
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