What schizophrenia looks and feels like to the patient/client

I have written a lot about my personal experiences as a lawyer dealing with people who suffer from schizophrenia. See here, here, and here. Without intending to brag, I know a lot about this disease. The disease is horrible. It frequently manifests itself with hallucinations and delusions that terrify the patient. Until you have spent time dealing with sufferers of this awful affliction you simply cannot imagine the terror they express when the disease is florid.

I have wondered in the past how to communicate to people who have not dealt with schizophrenia what the disease and resulting terror must look and feel like to the sufferer. Yesterday, Robin Williams died and that provided the inspiration for this post. To be clear, this is not a tribute to Williams, although it could be. Rather, his tragic death brought to mind a scene from an old movie where Williams plays a schizophrenic desperately dealing with his disease. The 1991 move is the Fisher King.

Williams play a character who witnessed the violent shotgun death of his wife and emerges with schizophrenia, although the illness is never actually named.  Williams’ character is continually plagued by a hallucinatory Red Knight, who terrifies him whenever he shows any confidence in rebuilding his life. The attached clip follows a date with a shy woman where Williams’ character has enjoyed a wonderful time. As he steps back from her door step after kissing her good night and feeling that a fulfilling life may emerge, the full horror of the schizophrenia is revealed.

I urge to you watch the clip if you want to know what schizophrenia looks and feels like to the patient. In particular, any lawyer who is likely to encounter a client who is a schizophrenic desperately needs to know how terrifying the world appears to these terribly ill people. I honestly don’t think a lawyer can competently represent a person who has this disease without understanding the horror that permeates the mind of the client when his or her illness is florid. Obtaining and then internalizing this knowledge will be unpleasant for the lawyer, but such effort and action are critical in my view if the lawyer wants to represent the schizophrenic competently. At the very least, you will develop a justifiable empathy with the client, and that is a good thing for those lawyers, like most of us, who constantly battle cynicism.


6 responses

  1. Judge:
    Kudos to the filmmakers here for attempting to do something quite challenging, i.e., showing the effects of schizophrenia (or mental illness, generally), solely by the use of moving images and minimal dialogue. IMHO literature is superior in attempting to portray some topics that do not lend themselves to being portrayed as well in a visual medium. Nonetheless, this clip conveys the character’s sense of hopelessness and loneliness. One can only pray that, in his last moments, Mr. Williams did not feel this way.

  2. I remember a piece on NPR way back (2002 I think) that had a simulation of “normal interactions” where they had added symptoms described by schizophrenics (hallucinations, etc.). I can’t find it on their website anymore but this video looks like what I remember: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkB2CGL769o

    It is unsettling but helped me conceptualize the problem they have in a similar way to your movie clip. The second part of the video is higher quality, not just a slide show though the first part is bad enough.

  3. Levi, thanks a lot for sending me the clip. Despite the video quality, the substance is very informative. Imagine living like that particularly if you are really hungry for pizza. Forgive the last part of that sentence.

    All the best.


  4. Thank you for this important message. It is very important that attorneys understand – to the extent possible – the effects of mental illness. Attorneys need to consider what is in the best interests of the client when mental health issues are involved in a case.

  5. I’m handling a use of force case right now where the deceased was a lifelong sufferer of schizophrenia. It is terrible reading through the medical charts, the arrest records, hearing the family’s testimony about how it completely changed their lives, etc. Hard stuff.

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