New College alum shares experiences with schizophrenia
College is a time of enormous change, but for alumnus Carlos Larrauri (‘08) the usual whirlwind of young adulthood took a tumultuous turn when, during his final year of college, he was diagnosed with adult onset schizophrenia. Years after receiving his initial diagnosis Larrauri has become a vocal advocate for mental health issues, recently authoring an op-ed relating his experiences with schizophrenia, which appeared in The Miami Herald.
Inspired by the public dialogue about mental health that emerged after the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Larrauri hopes that sharing his personal experiences with the hardships of diagnosis and the long road to treatment and recovery will help others who struggle with mental health issues and combat stigma against those with a diagnosed mental health disorder.
Prior to his diagnosis, Larrauri had little awareness of, or concern for, the various issues affecting those with mental health disorders.
“It was not something I really thought about,” Larrauri said in a phone interview.
That all quickly changed when, at the age of 23, Larrauri was diagnosed with adult onset schizophrenia.
“My awareness level did a 180,” Larrauri said.
Larrauri soon became well versed in the medical, legal and social issues which accompany a diagnosis such as schizophrenia and began considering how he could help fight stigma and bring attention to the need for an expansion in funding and resources for the treatment of mental health disorder.
“I would like to give people the benefit of my experiences,” Larrauri said. He wants to let those struggling with mental health issues know that “they are not their illness.”
Although, in retrospect, Larrauri believes that he was experiencing symptoms as many as two to three years prior to his diagnosis, it was not until his f–ourth year at New College that he began to sense that something was amiss.
A dedicated student, Larrauri was initially interested in practicing medicine and gained admittance into the highly competitive accelerated medical school program at Ohio State University. However, soon after arriving at Ohio State, Larrauri found that the cultural and academic atmosphere of a large university was not providing him with the breadth and depth of curriculum needed to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.
Larrauri then moved back to Florida and began attending New College in 2008. Attracted by the college’s small size and rigorous yet flexible curriculum, Larrauri quickly developed a deep interest in the study of religions. Liberally inclined, Larrauri felt that New College’s “free-spirited” culture would provide him with the space and resources to explore his various academic and artistic interests.
“For the most part, I’ve always been an exceptional student,” Larrauri said. “I love school. I love learning.” However, as he began his fourth year, Larrauri’s mental health started to precipitously decline.
“All of a sudden, at the end of senior year, I was struggling,” Larrauri explained. “I wasn’t able to focus, or concentrate. I wasn’t able to bring it all together.” Looking back, Larrauri now realizes that his academic troubles as well as his social isolation should have served as “red-flags.” “I began to withdraw,” Larrauri admitted.
As Larrauri’s condition worsened his friends, partners and peers slowly dropped out of his life. Struggling to keep up with his coursework, Larrauri sought refuge from his isolation in his studies of religion and his passion for music. Overcome with feelings of religiosity and a lack of interest in social interaction, Larrauri became increasingly alienated from his friends and classmates.
“Mental illness takes control of you,” Larrauri said.
After Larrauri received several disciplinary warnings from school officials, his mother was finally alerted to his deteriorating condition by a fellow student. Despite his academic and social troubles, Larrauri was able to graduate. In December of 2011, Larrauri moved back to his mother’s home in Miami and began searching for answers that would explain the decline of his mental health. Soon after , Larrauri was diagnosed with adult onset schizophrenia. A diagnosis that, Larrauri admits, scared him.
“I knew something was going on, I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. It was still something heavy to deal with, almost traumatic,” Larrauri said. Upon first receiving his diagnosis, Larrauri felt as if he had been “given a life sentence.” Fortunately, Larrauri was able to quickly find a successful treatment plan and is now “doing better than I’ve ever done before.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent, or about one in four, Americans age 18 or older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Schizophrenia, in particular, afflicts about one percent of the population, or about 2.4 million Americans. Affecting men and women with equal frequency, schizophrenia often manifests in late adolescents and early adulthood, although it can take years before a proper diagnosis is finally received.
Symptoms are divided into three categories: negative, positive and cognitive. The first category includes symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoid delusions and distorted perceptions, beliefs and behaviors while the second category includes ahedonia, or loss of pleasure, and decreased abilities to plan, speak, or express emotions. Cognitive symptoms often manifest as confused or disordered speech, memory problems, difficulties with logical thinking, decision-making and a decreased attention span.
“Now that I look back, postdiagnosis, I think that a lot of my academic interests were kind of colored by my mental illness” Larrauri said. While at New College Larrauri enrolled in “lots of religion and philosophy courses” which, he believes, were “the result of my symptoms of religious preoccupation,” a preoccupation that, he added, turned off “like switch” about three months after beginning medication.
Medications used to treat schizophrenia are often quite powerful and, as Larrauri acknowledged, may cause a host of side effects ranging from weight gain to muscle rigidity and changes in metabolic function. It can often take years for a successful treatment plan to be established.
“Not everybody has positive experiences with medication” Larrauri said, adding that he got “lucky” and has never suffered from many of the severe side effects associated with medications used to treat schizophrenia.
Taking a holistic approach to his recovery, Larrauri credits a combination of medication, therapy and social support, especially the support of his mother whom he calls his “best friend,” with helping him get back on the road to living a healthy and successful life. It is important, Larrauri said, that everyone, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, to realize that the management of these disorders require a “treatment continuum.”
Now a vocal advocate for mental health issues and treatment, Larrauri emphasizes the need for education in combating stigma and improving treatment resources. Larrauri noted that a host of local, state and federal programs providing everything from medical support to vocational assistance are currently in place for those diagnosed with mental health disorders.
“You have to become a knowledgeable consumer,” Larrauri explained.
When asked if he was able to find a support network on campus Larrauri replied, “No. I was absolutely on my own throughout the whole experience,” adding, “I think it would have helped.” During his time at New College, Larrauri encountered widespread stigma against speaking out publicly about mental health issues and a general lack of any public discussion of mental health on campus.
Hannah Gilbert, a second-year student and president of the New College chapter of Active Minds, a national organization that participates in mental health advocacy and education, echoed Larrauri’s concerns about the prevalence of stigma against mental health disorders within the New College community.
“I think the biggest problem at New College is not talking about it,” Gilbert said. Even though “a majority of students go to the CWC for counseling at least once in their time here,” Gilbert pointed out, mental health issues are still “not talked about enough.”
“Once you start talking about it you start encountering stigma,” Gilbert said. Diagnosed with general anxiety disorder during her first year at New College, Gilbert is all to familiar with the stigma encountered by those who are open about their experiences with mental health disorders.
“Personally, when you tell people you’ve been to therapy…. they don’t really see you the same way as before,” Gilbert added. As most students are diagnosed with mental health disorders only after arriving at college, Gilbert is focused on expanding the mental health resources available on campus. She also plans to encourage more public discussion about mental health at New College with the hope that breaking the silence on these issues will help combat stigma.
“Although we are not a support group, we are a supportive group,” Gilbert said. Well aware of student complaints regarding the availability and quality of on campus mental health services, Gilbert recommends that students seeking alternatives to the Counseling and Wellness Center investigate on campus support groups and ask peers for referrals.
Ashley Parks, a thesis student and the CWC representative, recognizes that the school must do more to expand the availability, quality and variety of on campus mental health resources. However, she stressed that students are “not alone, especially on this campus,” and noted that the CWC offers both psychiatric and counseling services, including a new online service, which allows students to anonymously chat with counselors.
Both Larrauri and Gilbert acknowledged that, although New College’s small size makes it easier to build a support network, the academic pressure no doubt places a great deal of strain on the emotional and psychological well being of students.
Although proud of the academic work he undertook at New College, when Larrauri was asked if he would recommend the college to those students diagnosed with a mental health disorder Larrauri replied, “unfortunately, the answer would have to be no.” He added that the mixture of high-pressured academics, stigma and an exuberant party culture is a “recipe for disaster” for those struggling with mental health issues. Larrauri thinks that New College should do more to expand the availability and awareness of mental health services on campus and encourage students to openly discuss mental health issues, perhaps by taking “an academic angle” to the problem and offering a greater array of classes which explore mental health from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
Larrauri said that the response to his op-ed have been “overwhelmingly positive” and has inspired him to continue sharing his experiences. Although Larrauri has found a great deal of support since going public with his story, he continues to fight against stigma.
“I’ve lost plenty of employment opportunities,” Larrauri said. He also pointed out that “knowing when and where to be open” is, unfortunately, still a decision those diagnosed with a mental health disorder must carefully weigh.
“When people know that you have a mental illness, sometimes they see you as a liability,” Larrauri said.
For now, Larrauri is happy to be back in school, pursing a paralegal degree at Miami-Dade College while also leading support groups for the Miami chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Larrauri plans to attend either law school or graduate school, where he would like to focus on the legal and social issues encountered by those with mental health disorders, while also continuing to share his experiences with schizophrenia through his personal website, www.mysplitmind.com, and through his advocacy. Although there will always be “off days,” Larrauri is happy to have regained “control” over his life and his future.
“Mental illness takes control of you,” Larraui said. “[But] you can take control, you can’t cure it, but you can manage.”
Gilbert, who hosts a range of events focused on “self care” sponsored by Active Minds, agreed with this sentiment.
“Not all of us have a mental illness, but we all have mental health,” Gilbert said.
Information for this articles was found at www.nimh.nih.gov, www.psychiatry.org, and www.nami.org, www.activeminds. org. Read Carlos Larruri’s op-ed online at www.miamiherald.com Visit Carlos Larruri’s website mysplitmind.com to learn more about schizophrenia and find links to resources and reviews of literature. Active Minds hosts weekly meetings on Wednesday nights at 8 pm in the GDC.