ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Mental Illness Not Contrary to Being Intelligent

By Jack Bragen
Friday March 14, 2014 - 12:51:00 PM

When I was twenty, I discussed with my psychiatrist (the one I had at the time) the subject of whether mentally ill people could be intelligent. Prior to becoming ill, I had always thought of myself and had been thought by others to be an intelligent person. 

He said that the illness doesn't eliminate intelligence, but that it affects "harnessing of intelligence."  

It's like the old computer term from the 1970's, "GIGO," which stood for "Garbage In, Garbage Out." A perfectly good computer will not work unless the information put into it is usable. A brain that's mostly good will not work right if there is an area in the brain that is sabotaging the works.  

The diagnosis of mental illness had been quite a blow to my self-esteem. About two years after my diagnosis, when I did very well in electronics training, I realized that I still had brainpower. Rather then brilliance and mental illness being mutually exclusive, often they coincide.  

However, when (due to symptoms of mental illness) the mind is living in a pseudo and inaccurate version of reality, a person might be intelligent within those bounds, but is intelligently processing erroneous information.  

Schizophrenia is believed to be a condition in which the mind splits off from reality. It is not to be confused with multiple personality disorder. A person with schizophrenia, even while psychotic, could be magnificently intelligent, but is functioning in the context a false, internally generated, pseudo-reality.  

However, if someone with schizophrenia has too many repeat episodes of their illness, or of they go an excessively long time without treatment, they can lose a significant amount of brainpower, and this can show up visibly on an MRI.  

Antipsychotic medications work partly by forcing a person to be receptive to their external environment. At the same time, medication slows down the brain--and this is helpful when the brain has become a "runaway train" in which the thinking can't slow down. A person taking medication can still be smart, even while some amount of slowness may be introduced.  

As far as I can tell, medication hasn't ruined my thinking ability--on the contrary. As one might not expect, physical limitations and physical side effects introduced by these medications are usually worse than some possible damping effects on cognitive ability. Medication introduces physical sluggishness, fatigue, clumsiness, and poor reflexes. It doesn't limit thinking nearly as much as it limits physical ability.  

When someone in treatment for mental illness displays intelligence or insight, it sometimes fools people, some of them mental health practitioners, into believing that the person isn't really ill, or doesn't need medication. However, this can be a grave error. The fact of being medicated could be the reason why the person is "doing well" and discontinuation of it is often the wrong thing.  

The belief of mental health practitioners that when someone is in their care, it indicates that they are less advanced than they, or that we are in a space of "having problems," aren’t valid assumptions. Oftentimes the illness is due to a chemical imbalance in part of the brain, and not due to a defect or lack of development in personality.  

Many people with mental illness are very aware and intelligent people, and we may find it insulting when mental health treatment professionals are condescending as though we lack their level of intelligence. They might believe that the insult escapes us--it doesn’t. 


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I would like to retract the following statement that appeared in my column of two weeks ago:  

"My perspective is fairly unique, since most people with mental illness seem to be too impaired by their condition or by sociological factors to write about their experiences and to do this at a level that is commercially viable." 

I was wrong for making the above statement. Persons with mental illness are often every bit as gifted as I am, sometimes more so. If I have had more success at writing than some others with or without mental illness, it is only because I have put more time into it.