I never heard of schizophrenia until eighth grade health class. Along with learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the obligatory, highly embarrassing sex ed curriculum (from which my parents refused to excuse me, despite my entreaties), we plodded through a unit on mental health. When we covered neuroses, I knew right off that the teacher was talking about me. But it was the psychoses that were really scary, and I wondered whether I could secretly have one of those.
When we arrived at a discussion of schizophrenia, I was shocked (pun intended) to learn about such strange phenomena as multiple personalities, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, catatonia and hearing voices. Alone in bed at night, I prayed to the Lord that I would never be afflicted with any of these horrors.
Mental illness, schizophrenia included, was still on the pedagogic menu when we were once again subject to the tortures of health class as juniors in high school. By that time, I understood that I was not psychotic and was able to relax a bit. I went on to take two psychology classes before I graduated, one of which included a visit to the local mental hospital. My father humored me by driving me to the Vassar College library on quite a few evenings, where I researched a term paper on schizophrenia until the librarians threw us out and locked the doors.
Even today there is stigma associated with mental illness, but it was much worse when I was a teenager back in the seventies. This was the era of Psycho, The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My fellow junior high and high school students were openly derisive about anyone who appeared to deviate from the norm in any way, and never more than when it came to mental illness or developmental disabilities. If we didn’t like something that someone did, they were “retarded,” “psycho” or “schizo.” We bandied these terms about indiscriminately in the same way that many continue to demean the sexual preferences of others by saying “that’s so gay” (sadly, still “dropped on a daily,” Macklemore and Lewis notwithstanding).
It’s good to be able to say that some things have changed in the past forty years, however. While the causes of mental illness have by no means been locked down, advances in scientific research have made inroads in our understanding of the nature and treatment of schizophrenia.
Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to me today when I learned that bacteria, of all things, are now being implicated as one possible cause of schizophrenia. New research estimates that about one-fifth of all cases of schizophrenia may be attributed to infection by Toxoplasma gondii.
Now, wait a minute. I know about toxoplasmosis. When my sisters (both of whom have always had cats as pets) were busy having babies, my mother warned them to have their husbands clean the cat box. It was known that cat feces could contain Toxoplasma, and that if this microorganism was transmitted to the blood of the fetus, the baby could be born with horrific brain deformities.
Turns out cat boxes are just the beginning, however. Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis long after they are born. T. gondii can also be transmitted through eating undercooked meat or by drinking contaminated water. It is estimated that as many as 60 million Americans may currently be infected with T. gondii, and that some of them will develop schizophrenia as a result of the protozoan’s effects on their brains.
Just think of it: One in five schizophrenics could have avoided a lifetime of misery and incapacity by avoiding infection by Toxoplasma.
Still want that steak done rare?
Sounds to me like yet another argument in favor of the vegan life.