CINCINNATI — Bethany Yeiser was thriving at the University of Southern California when everything changed.
She had visited impoverished areas of China during a break from school and couldn’t stop thinking about the suffering she witnessed. She became convinced she needed to be like Mother Teresa and could think of little else. Her grades suffered. She refused contact with her parents.
Eventually, she dropped out of school and became homeless in 2003.
“My mind was like this cloud, and I could not move on,” said Yeiser, now 39. “It was, to be exact, Jan. 28, 2006, when the voices began.”
The voices told her to shout profanity that she never used, and she did it. The auditory hallucinations got worse and worse. On March 3, 2007, police officers found Yeiser screaming back at the voices, she said, and took her to a psychiatric ward for evaluation. Doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia.
“I was absolutely sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing was wrong with me,” she said. “I thought, I am strong. I am very intelligent. I am ordinary. I’m not eccentric. It’s impossible for me to have schizophrenia.”
Yeiser accepted the diagnosis after she understood that schizophrenia is a brain disorder – not a weakness or moral failing – and after she found a doctor and medication that helped get her life back on track. She eventually finished her studies at University of Cincinnati, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology.
Now she’s working to educate others about schizophrenia through the CURESZ Foundation, which she founded with Dr. Henry Nasrallah, the doctor who got her on the path to recovery.
CURESZ, which stands for Comprehensive Understanding via Research and Education into Schizophrenia, works to correct misconceptions about schizophrenia and eliminate the stigma surrounding psychiatric brain disorders as it inspires hope among patients and their families.
“Many people with schizophrenia leave the hospital, and they’re stabilized. But they’re not in remission. They’re not recovered. And they have a very low quality of life,” Yeiser said. “CURESZ wants to see people with schizophrenia enjoying a higher standard of living.”
CURESZ spreads that message in many ways, including through supportive student clubs at the University of Cincinnati and Ohio University.
A disorder, not a ‘life sentence’
Reaching college students is especially important because people most often begin to display symptoms of schizophrenia in their late teens and early 20s, said Dr. Peirce Johnston, a general psychiatrist with UC Physicians who is director of medical student education at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He’s also a CURESZ Foundation board member.
“There’s nothing more lonely, I think, than being someone who’s suffering from any mental illness and not having support, or just being misunderstood by friends, family, the community,” Johnston said. “So to have a resource where they feel they can be at home, where they feel understood, where they can ask questions, is vital.”
That support is especially important because it can be difficult and time-consuming to find a psychiatrist to treat people with early symptoms of schizophrenia, he said.
Those symptoms can include auditory and visual hallucinations, Johnston said, as well as delusions, paranoia, worry and heightened concern about friends and family members. People with schizophrenia also can have less motivation and less interaction with those around them, he said, often withdrawing from activities, friends and family and isolating themselves.
“You know, 100 years ago, folks with schizophrenia would just simply be institutionalized,” Johnston said. “There wouldn’t be any treatment, and they would be put away in a state-run institution and never heard from again, unless they had the occasional visitor.”
Advances in treatment and long-acting antipsychotic medications have changed the potential for people with the diagnosis, he said, although a lack of proper treatment still can result in lifelong impairment.
“Bethany is living proof – and there are many, many others out there who are living proof,” he said, “Folks can be diagnosed in college and, if treated properly, can still graduate from college and go on to have a meaningful career.”
Yeiser said she hopes CURESZ can expand its efforts to have clubs on as many as five college campuses within the next 18 months.
“There is tremendous need to educate students at this age of risk, and that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing,” she said. “I do not consider my schizophrenia to be a life sentence. I am recovered. I’m not cured.”
The important thing to understand is that schizophrenia is a physical disorder, just like diabetes and arthritis and cancer are physical disorders, Yeiser said, and it can be treated effectively.
“I hope more young people see that there should be no shame in this,” she said. “And it’s wonderful to help your peer, who may be struggling, to treat them as if they were struggling with any other disease.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.