Before Ashley Smith gave a presentation before a group of law enforcement officials about schizophrenia, one of the officials had told the audience before she arrived that “there is no hope” for a person with the mental illness.
Fortunately, she wasn’t in the room when he made the remarks.
When Smith finished her talk, the official came up to her and told her he was “blown away.”
“Afterwards, he told me he hadn’t seen a presentation go so well and it was an education; he was astonished,” said Smith, who is one of the people with the condition featured in “Living with Schizophrenia,” a documentary premiering 8:30-10 a.m. Thursday at Benjamin Steakhouse on E. 41st Street in New York City.
“It’s a manageable illness,” Smith said. “There are a few misconceptions out there, that there is no hope for schizophrenia; all people with schizophrenia are violent; it’s caused by poor parenting. It’s not true.
“When you look at how far we’ve come in technology and advances in medications, I’m able to live a normal life and share my story with others.”
Smith knows firsthand.
In June 2007 she was arrested after stealing a military truck from an airfield and leading authorities on a high-speed chase. She was jailed for five months and then take to a state hospital where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and given treatment.
In an interview last year with BlackAmericaWeb.com, Smith said she had no sense of suffering when the first signs of schizophrenia arrived.
“It’s because I had always been involved in community work. I was in the church when I was growing up. I started hearing voices and I thought it was a special gift, that I could sense good and evil spirits in people. I thought that was normal because I had always been a spiritual person.”
The arrest was the first step toward getting her some help.
Last year, Smith’s story was part of a documentary that premiered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. to help increase understanding and to reduce the fear and stigma often associated with schizophrenia.
Smith started a nonprofit foundation, Embracing My Mind that provides peer support to people living with the illness and their caregivers, as well as classes for law enforcement. She also writes a blog, Overcoming Schizophrenia, which provides information to help people with the condition and their loved ones to cope.
This year’s documentary, which is being released as part of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, explores the lives of three people living with schizophrenia, their daily routines, challenges and their personal insights about the illness and the recovery process.
Expert perspective also is provided by Xavier Amador, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University Teacher’s College and a consultant on the cable show “Bethenny Ever After,” whose brother had schizophrenia.
Amador is a regular contributor on the morning TV news show circuit, is a highly sought after speaker and is the founder and director of the LEAP Institute, which helps people better communicate with loved ones who need mental health services.
About 1 percent of the U.S. adult population – about 2 million people – and approximately 24 million people globally are living with schizophrenia, a chronic and potentially disabling brain disorder.
In most cases, schizophrenics are not criminal or violent, but they can find themselves in trouble because their illness has not been diagnosed or is not being managed with proper treatment. African Americans are 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with this condition, but often don’t get help until they end up in the legal system.
Despite commonly held beliefs, schizophrenia is not caused by stress and is not a split personality disorder. Risk factors include a direct family member (sibling or a parent) with schizophrenia and living in a densely populated city, but they are not considered causes.
“It saddens me to hear that,” Smith said Tuesday when asked how she responds when people who do not know she has schizophrenia say something insensitive or inaccurate about the illness. “I just share my story as I’m doing through this documentary and I have a real conversation about it.”
Friends and family can help, Smith said, by “being open-minded and listening. Learn to have an open discussion about this and learn about the genetic component….I’m open to ideas and comments. I get stumped occasionally, but it’s so empowering to learn to reflect on where I’ve been and where I am today.”
To learn more about schizophrenia and to see a trailer of the documentary, visit www.ChoicesInRecovery.com.