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The Cultural Roots of Schizophrenia

Medication assisted treatment combined with therapy has been effective for schizophrenia. At La Jolla Recovery, we believe that mental health deserves professional attention and the proper therapy and program for successful reintegration with society. 

Understanding the history and classification of schizophrenia is key for the right intervention, approach and awareness.

The classical subtypes of schizophrenia include the paranoid, hebephrenic, undifferentiated, residual, catatonic, and simple. 

Psychoanalysis, behavioral therapy, supportive therapy and family interventions were the only available psychotherapies for a long time. Consensus was reached in that psychoanalysis is not indicated in patients with schizophrenia. Orthodox behavioral therapy made valuable contributions, but was mostly aimed at compensating behavioral deficits. Family therapy has shown positive effects in important clinical outcomes like psychotic relapse, medication compliance and rehospitalization. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been introduced not only for helping to compensate certain deficits of schizophrenia, but also to complement medication in the treatment of positive, emotional and negative symptoms.  

The “first clinical description of a case of schizophrenia, was described in the English physician John Haslam´s “Illustration of Madness” although the term schizophrenia appeared up to a century later.  It presented the case of James Tilly Mathews, who was a tea merchant, married and the father of two children.  France imprisoned him in 1793 because he claimed the existence of telepathic communications between France and the United Kingdom.  He wrote to British ministers to denounce conspiracies against his country.  According to him, a gang of villains in London, very skilled in “Pneumatic Chemistry”, assaulted him with a mind control machine, built by French Jacobin revolutionaries to lead England into a war disaster. 

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History of Schizophrenia

This gang was able to control people’s minds, “forcing magnetic fluid so that facial muscles were forced to laugh or grimace” and they were able to “speak in the brain” in a “silent transport of intelligence into the intellectual atmosphere” of the brain. 

James Mathews’ story is generated disputes between his family, the representatives of medicine and the government, as well as controversies within the medical group.  He remained almost two decades years in Bethlem Hospital.  He had delusions and chronic hallucinations, dying a year after his discharge from the hospital. This case is the first reliable example of that condition that 100 years later would be named schizophrenia

Between 1868 and 1874, a German psychiatrist described a syndrome relevant to this history: catatonia. 

“A state in which the patient sits, quietly or completely mute, immobile, without anything making him change position, with the appearance of being absorbed in the contemplation of an object, with his eyes fixed on a distant point and without any apparent volition, nor reaction to sensory impressions” 

Some patients went on to intellectual deterioration, but others had amazing recoveries. He emphasized the presence of “epileptiform seizures,” which suggested neurological causes in some patients. Today we know that viral and autoimmune encephalitis cause catatonia, seizures and mental disorders. The evidence that schizophrenia is a biologically-based disease of the brain has accumulated rapidly during the past two decades. Recently this evidence has been also been supported with dynamic brain imaging systems that show very precisely the wave of tissue destruction that takes place in the brain that is suffering from schizophrenia. 


In 1907, the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler changed the name of dementia praecox by coining the neologism schizophrenia, which means “division (or splitting) of the mind”.  To justify this etymological choice, he wrote: “I call early dementia schizophrenia because the splitting of psychic functions is one of its most important characteristics” 

The metaphor of a division, separation, splitting, rupture or fragmentation of the mind was part of the romantic psychology of the 19th century, and became part of the literary culture, as can be seen in the story of Robert Stevenson, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.  This metaphor, whose supporters took it as a reality, also penetrated the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and popular culture. This largely explains the almost immediate acceptance of the clinical neologism; it was not only a point of convergence between biological psychiatry and psychoanalysis: it was also an articulation between academic and popular culture.   

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Schizophrenia in American Literature

The novels by Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo grapple with the shift from modernism to postmodernism and both present new ways of interpreting agency and identity through the postmodernist sensibility of schizophrenia while not completely rejecting the modernist sensibility of paranoia. Pynchon, writing The Crying of Lot 49 early in postmodernity, is specifically grappling with how characters can transition from paranoid to schizophrenic modes of interpreting the world and how an individual’s agency and selfhood are affected by this shift. DeLillo, writing in postmodernism two decades later, rethinks in  Libra the divide between the eras and their terms to construct an amalgamated interpretation of paranoia, agency, and identity in regards to schizophrenia. In these books, there seems to be an alternative narrative of the world hiding within the accepted narrative, which is just a façade for the “real” narrative. Schizophrenia is presented by its characters as a mode of knowledge which interprets the world to be comprised of multiple narratives. The postmodernist thinkers who associate paranoia with modernism and schizophrenia with postmodernism believe that the former was a psychological response to the conditions of modernity, while the latter is the psychological response to the conditions of postmodernity. The experience of postmodernity is too fragmented, multiple, and overloaded with information to be understood through paranoia as well as it is understood through schizophrenia.  

Decades after the publication of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the term schizophrenia was included in the psychiatric classifications of the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association.  

At La Jolla Recovery, clients diagnosed with this mental condition, will be backed by our experience of treating schizophrenia with he most innovative evidence-based therapies. Contact us to learn about our approach to treating schizophrenia as well as other co morbid addiction problems including drugs and alcohol. During Covid-19 we are open and respecting social distance procedures. Read more on our privacy practices here.


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Hurting from the challenges of hurting or living with someone with schizophrenia and have questions regarding treatment? Let La Jolla Recovery provide a tailored schizophrenia program that encompasses mental health as well as unique needs to prepare for success.