Surprising Success Of Schizophrenics

Workers with schizophrenia can have surprising professional success.

When Elyn Saks (pictured above) was diagnosed with schizophrenia decades ago, she was told not to expect to ever have a career, or much of a life. But the University of South Carolina law professor went on to win a 2009 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and study other high-functioning, high-achieving schizophrenics.

In writing about her experience in The New York Times, she discussed how her 20 research subjects in the Los Angeles area compartmentalized their condition so that they could pursue careers as a "doctor, lawyer, psychologist and chief executive of a nonprofit group." She says that their symptoms, as well as her own, included hallucinations and mild delusions.

For instance, she wrote about an educator with a master's degree who learned to face his own "hallucinations and ask, 'What's the evidence for that? Or is it just a perception problem?' Another participant said, 'I hear derogatory voices all the time. ... You just gotta blow them off.' "

While discrimination against the mentally ill is illegal, it's well documented that workers are so fearful of retribution that they often choose to hide their condition. And with good cause too -- a highly-cited 2006 study found that workers who reveal a mental illness earn an average of 28 percent less than their fellow employees. Saks' research, however, provides a window on how some manage to cope with their condition and succeed at work.

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