By Daniel J. Vance


  Most people look down on the nation's estimated 2.1 million schizophrenics. This is a disability that carries a social stigma matched only by having AIDS.

  Recently I interviewed the American responsible for bringing talk of schizophrenia out of the closet and into the living room: Joanne Verbanic, 58, of Farmington, Michigan.

  "For me, the stigma is harder to deal with than the illness," she said to me over the telephone. "The illness is treatable but the stigma continues. I kept my diagnosis hidden from my employer for 14 years because I was afraid of being fired."

  A schizophrenic may have delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thinking and speech, and feel agitated. They may withdraw socially. Schizophrenia is "caught" mainly by persons between ages 16 and 24.

  Joanne's first "psychotic break" came in 1970 at age 25 while married to an alcoholic and facing bankruptcy. Doctors did not share their diagnosis; she found out reading her medical chart. "I went berserk," she said. 

  In March 1985, she came out of the closet as a schizophrenic on national TV shows hosted by Sally Jessy Raphael and Dr. Sonya Friedman. Four months later she advertised in the Detroit Free Press to form a support group, Schizophrenics Anonymous (SA). Two people responded. Today, SA has more than 150 chapters in 25 states and six countries. Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, SA's six-step program has a spiritual emphasis.

  "Since 1985 we have touched the lives of 15,000 people," she said. "SA is a place where people can talk without stigma about delusions, hallucinations or voices, and not think they're crazy or untouchable."

    So why does schizophrenia hit people 16-24 hardest? "That's the age when stress begins building," she said. "It hits students in college, teen-agers, people working their first jobs, marriage. For me it was marriage and alcoholism." A genetic factor is involved. Schizophrenics also have too much of a brain chemical, dopamine.

  After having founded Schizophrenics Anonymous and served as a National Schizophrenia Foundation board member, she takes personally negative TV news stories. "When I hear of a murderer labeled as paranoid schizophrenic, I feel like a knife has been put through my heart. Schizophrenia is part of who I am."

  People with schizophrenia deserve dignity and respect, she said. They also need to be responsible for their illness by taking medication and seeking professional help.

  For more information, visit www.sanonymous.org or www.nsfoundation.org.

  [Contact Mr. Vance: www.danieljvance.com]