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Living with schizophrenia: It's possible with medication

Charlie Chastain says crimes such as the Capitol Hill shootings create obstacles for schizophrenics  

From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

October 15, 1998
Web posted at: 10:51 p.m. EDT (0251 GMT)

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Names such as Russell Weston Jr., Theodore Kaczynski and John Hinckley Jr. evoke a frightening image of schizophrenia. But more often than not, that image is not accurate for many who suffer from the disorder.

Charlie Chastain said most people are surprised to find out he has schizophrenia. He developed the tell-tale signs of the brain disease when he was 15.

"He became paranoid, very paranoid, and believe it or not, that's a very hard thing to discover in a child," said his mother, Mary Ella Chastain. "When they start staying in their room, you don't necessarily know that they think people are outside the windows trying to get in."

Chastain's parents were told to expect the worst.

CNN's Rhonda Rowland discusses the realities of schizophrenia
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"He would spend the majority of his life in a locked facility and we'd be visiting on holidays, and the family should be prepared to adjust to that," Mary Ella Chastain said.

But that's not how life turned out for Charlie Chastain. Now 27, he has a college degree in psychology and a full-time job as an advocate for mental health patients in Clayton County, Georgia.

He leads a support group for the mentally ill and hopes one day to go to graduate school.

Chastain attributes much of his success to finding the right medication four years after his first break with reality.

"I really think that if I went off my medicine, I would end up in a psychiatric hospital," he said.

Charlie and medicine
Following a strict regimen of medication helps many schizophrenics live with their ailment  

That fear motivates him to continue his treatment. Unfortunately, among people with schizophrenia, Chastain is the exception, not the rule.

Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a leader in schizophrenia research, said the main reason people don't get help is that they don't realize they are sick.

Doctors say Russell Weston, who is accused of fatally shooting two Capitol Hill police officers in July, is a good example.

"When you say to someone like Mr. Weston, 'You should take your medication,' he would say 'Why do I need medication? There's nothing wrong with me,'" Torrey explains.

Also, treatment isn't always easy to get, and medications are expensive and often have bad side effects.

Even if patients get treatment, they often abandon it.

"You take your medicine, your voices stop, your delusional thinking stops, you start feeling better," Torrey said. "You say to yourself, 'Gee, I'm not sick anymore.'"

Events like the Capitol Hill shooting also help create one of the biggest barriers for schizophrenics -- a stigma.

"When I see those horror stories, it just takes me apart, particularly the Weston family when they interviewed the mother and father, because I know how hard they tried to get treatment for their son," Mary Ella Chastain said.

Her son said such well-publicized events are a setback for people like him.

"They see, 'Oh, he killed the president and, of course, he has schizophrenia or, of course -- he's bipolar,'" he said, referring to the psychotic disorder characterized by alternating periods of depression and mania. "I think it's a misrepresentation."

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