'Broken Minds' follows the victims of schizophrenia, not the experts


October 30, 1990|By Michael Hill

Tonight's Frontline paints a portrait of the tragic frustration that is called schizophrenia.

"Broken Minds," which will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, is not a clinical examination of the disease, a dispassionate chronicling of the variety of its manifestations with a look at the latest research in the area.

Indeed, this PBS documentary is a bit skimpy with the basic facts. It never provides even a basic definition of schizophrenia, or, alternatively, an admission that the disease is fundamentally beyond definition.

That is the feeling you get after meeting several people who suffer from it -- that it can't be captured in mere words. As one of the psychiatrists interviewed notes, schizophrenia doesn't have a central symptom in the way that mental retardation impacts on the intellect or manic-depression affects mood.

Instead, schizophrenia seems to have a more fundamental basis; it's a full-court press on the brain, and its manifestations can appear in a variety of guises.

"Broken Minds" begins in a van in New York's Central Park. Two workers for a group called Project Reachout are trying to feed and care for the multitude of mentally ill who wander this urban wilderness.

They know their patients well. It is a tremendous breakthrough to get one to take a sandwich. To get one to accept their invitation to come to a clinic for treatment is a victory of the highest sort.

Tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill people, released from hospitals in the deinstitutionalization moves of the last 20 years, wander our streets, testing our society's definition of individual rights and liberties.

This hour takes you into the streets with one of them, a man who came into the clinic for help. And it looks at another young woman who has remained in a hospital. She developed schizophrenia while her identical twin did not, making them part of an important research project into the causes of the illness.

In both cases the frustration is paramount: The man on the street with his rat-tat-tat speech and his paranoid belief that he is the subject of extensive government surveillance, and the soft-spoken young woman who nevertheless thinks that a trip to Washington for the research project had something to do with her being on the FBI's most wanted list.

It is so evident that these are intelligent people who could have wonderful lives if they could just break out of these patterns that have trapped their brains. But instead, their thoughts zoom around a labyrinthine race track of their own making. When they occasionally peer out from within its confines, who knows what they see? Sometimes their closest friends become their most-feared enemies, with dangerous results.

Indeed, the frustration is so evident that you come away from a segment on lobotomy, once the preferred treatment for schizophrenia, certainly with sympathy for the patients who suffered its effects, but also for the doctors who performed the operations, seeking, perhaps with desperation in those days before psychosomatic drugs, to do something, anything, to help the helpless.

If there is a villain in the piece, it is the Freudians who, ignoring even their guru's stand that psychoanalysis is an inappropriate treatment for this disease, still seek its cause in early childhood. It would be almost laughable listening to one such practitioner discoursing on schizophrenia by talking about the availability and withdrawal of the breast to the newborn, had not such beliefs caused so much guilt on the part of so many innocent parents over the years.

Though there is talk of new drugs and research, "Broken Minds" offers no real hope, only insight. Perhaps the next time you see some filthy mess making his way down the street ranting and raving, you won't feel disgust, but compassion for the person who's in there trying to escape the prison of his mind.

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