Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, our hosts decided to dedicate an episode to the frequently asked questions surrounding schizophrenia. Questions include “What is having a hallucination like?” and “Why won’t my loved one get help?”
We also welcome photographer Whitney Yeager, creator of The Sammy Project, which highlights stories of people with serious mental health conditions. She began this endeavor after her son was killed while experiencing an episode of psychosis.
Whitney Emory Yeager / Photographer
Creator of The Sammy Project
Yeager’s mission is to make it socially acceptable to talk openly about internal struggles — to encourage young people today to speak candidly about whatever mental health issues or illnesses they may be experiencing. She believes a shift must be made where someone’s diagnosis does not define them but empowers them to recognize their strengths. It takes great courage to write about one’s mental health, which traditionally is kept very private. She created a photography show called The Sammy Project, in which the participants take agency over their struggles and honor their son, brother, grandson, friend, and neighbor, Samuel Boone Yeager, whose life was cut short on April 3, 2021. Had he felt comfortable to talk about his mental illness and ask for help, Sam would likely still be here today.
Rachel Star Withers creates videos documenting her schizophrenia, ways to manage and let others like her know they are not alone and can still live an amazing life. She has written Lil Broken Star: Understanding Schizophrenia for Kids and a tool for schizophrenics, To See in the Dark: Hallucination and Delusion Journal. Fun Fact: She has wrestled alligators.
To learn more about Rachel, please visit her website, RachelStarLive.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Schizophrenia. Hosted by Rachel Star Withers, an advocate who lives openly with Schizophrenia. We’re talking to experts about all aspects of life with this condition. Welcome to the show!
Rachel Star Withers: Welcome to Inside Schizophrenia, a Healthline Media podcast. I’m your host, Rachel Star Withers here with my incredible co-host Gabe Howard and May is Mental Health Awareness Month and per Mental Health America, this year’s theme is “Back to Basics,” and definitely go to their website, MHAnational.org to check out lots of great resources for that, but that’s what we’re going to be doing today, getting down to the basics of schizophrenia and the frequently asked questions about what it’s like to have schizophrenia, what it’s like to be treated for schizophrenia, what it’s like to experience schizophrenia and misconceptions that most people have about this serious mental disorder. Our guest today joining us is photographer Whitney Yeager, who created an incredible portrait series called The Sammy Project. It highlights stories of individuals with serious mental disorders like schizophrenia. She began this endeavor after her son was killed while experiencing a psychotic episode.
Gabe Howard: It’s an incredible project, and it honors not only her son but all people living with schizophrenia. And our very own Rachel Star Withers did participate in it as well. Rachel, I know that that’s coming up later. Let’s talk about the basic questions. Right. And we’ve covered many of these as hour-long topics. So this is just going to be the 30,000-foot view. But let’s go. Let’s start right at the beginning, Rachel, what is schizophrenia?
Rachel Star Withers: Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by continuous or relapsing episodes of psychosis. So basically schizophrenia, it affects the way a person thinks, feels and behaves.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, obviously you live with schizophrenia, we work in the schizophrenia space. We host a podcast called Inside Schizophrenia. But how common is schizophrenia?
Rachel Star Withers: Great question. It is 0.3 to 1% of people are diagnosed with schizophrenia. Now, the reason there’s such a big jump there from 0.3 to 1 is that a lot of people never get diagnosed. And depending on where you live, you might have different access to health care.
Gabe Howard: And are there different types of schizophrenia or is it one size fits all?
Rachel Star Withers: This is the thing that I’m constantly asked about and by people with schizophrenia. The answer is no. There are no longer different types of schizophrenia. Originally there was paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, undifferentiated and residual type. And the reason they got rid of the types is that it was very hard to diagnose people on them, a lot of people were kind of between them. So now we have the schizophrenia spectrum. So basically a big umbrella term.
Gabe Howard: The big question that I know people want to know is what causes schizophrenia?
Rachel Star Withers: The exact cause of schizophrenia isn’t known, but they currently go with it’s a combination of genetics, environment and altered brain chemistry. They’ve also found quite a bit recently as far as the genetic components. However, to be safe, they’re still kind of going with we don’t fully know.
Gabe Howard: And that’s not a bad thing.
Rachel Star Withers: No, no, it’s not.
Gabe Howard: I think I’m actually like, I’m happy that they say that they don’t fully know because they don’t.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Right. They don’t fully know. And I really get worried about any absolute when it comes to almost any medical condition. But I really, really, really worry about absolutes when it comes to mental illness. So I just sort of want to reassure our audience that the fact that they don’t know? While I do want them to know, I also want them to be accurate. So research is ongoing. We’re learning more year after year after year after year. So let’s go ahead and say they don’t know yet
Rachel Star Withers: Yet. I like that.
Gabe Howard: Let’s move right along to the symptoms of schizophrenia. And this one always needs explanation.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. So there are three types of symptoms with schizophrenia. Positive symptoms, negative symptoms and cognitive symptoms. Here the words positive and negative, positive means added to. So something that’s been added. For instance, a delusion, a hallucination, disorganized thoughts, disorganized speech, all of that stuff would be added to you. Now, negative symptoms are things that are taken away from you. So many people with schizophrenia don’t have normal responses emotionally. They have very blunted affect. They have depression. So for instance, then if I have depression, a lot of my enjoyment of life has been taken from me. So the negative means a lack of. And cognitive symptoms, this is always the thing people forget, you know, when you think schizophrenia, you think hearing voices, seeing people that aren’t there, but it’s the cognitive that affects a lot of us. And that’s going to be just how your brain works, how your thought processes fall together, your memory, your reasoning. And even it can be the speed of how quickly you think and react to things.
Gabe Howard: And for all of our listeners, we cover these more in-depth in other episodes. So don’t be afraid to go to PsychCentral.com/IS or your favorite podcast player and delve through those back episodes if you want to learn more. I know we just did one on hallucinations where we really dived into that symptom of schizophrenia, and a hallucination is a positive symptom of schizophrenia, and we talk all about that and more. Rachel, again, going through our emails, I would say probably the second question that we get is how does this start?
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. Lots of family members also ask, what should I look for? The symptoms come on gradually. Now, the problem is that a lot of us don’t get help until we have hit a psychotic episode. So, so many people are like, oh, my gosh, they just suddenly went crazy. It’s like, no, they actually had been experiencing symptoms for a while. It just escalated and the person wasn’t able to get help until pretty much things fell apart. You can be born with schizophrenia. They’ve seen it in very small children, although quite rare. But the average age is usually your late teens to thirties as far as when schizophrenia shows up. Now those cognitive symptoms we talked about, the cognitive deficits, those are the first symptoms that someone who has schizophrenia will experience. So usually the cognitive first before the negative and positives. One of the examples online when I was looking up, you know, how to figure out if your loved one has schizophrenia and it described usually the person has a sense that something is wrong or their mind is playing tricks. And I thought that’s perfect because so many times that’s what I think. I’m like, I’m not off-off, but my mind is playing tricks on me and I’ll realize that I’m starting to kind of lose touch with reality.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I have alluded to the fact that we’re answering questions from our email box. And while we do get many questions about schizophrenia in email, the overwhelming majority of email is about your personal experience. And one of the top questions that you get asked is, why won’t my loved one get better or seek help? And we’re going to discuss that after the interview. But the second question that you get asked is, is all about medication. It’s all about what taking antipsychotics is like. Rachael, what is it like being on antipsychotics?
Rachel Star Withers: Being on anti-psychotics can be difficult. If you’ve never been on them, you’re just like, I don’t get it. Just take your pill, you’ll be fine. But there are a lot of side effects that come with an antipsychotic. And usually, unfortunately, you have to go through so many of them. It’s not like, oh, you have an infection, here’s the antibiotics that will make you better. It’s you have to try different antipsychotics at different dosages, usually multiple at a time. We like to refer to it as pretty much playing Russian roulette with medication. Many of them, as we talked about in our previous episode about tardive dyskinesia, do have some very serious side effects that can be permanent, for instance, the shaking and different things. So a lot goes into making the decision that you want to be on an antipsychotic and stay on it. I do want to be very clear that the point of them is for you to get better, is for you to be able to function and have a fulfilling and great life. One fun fact, though, just to think about the main point of anti-psychotics is to reduce those positive symptoms. So to get those hallucinations, delusions and things under control.
Gabe Howard: Rachel sticking to our email box what is having a hallucination like?
Rachel Star Withers: Now, of course, this is my personal experience. I cannot speak for all people with schizophrenia, but, they can be very confusing, scary. Some of them are just, I always describe it as like average. Like it’s not really good or bad, it’s just there. It’s just, okay, that’s a hallucination I’m having. And they could be something that you see, something that you hear. It could also have a hallucination of taste, smell, touch. For me, the first hallucinations that I had were seeing faces and things as a child, which really freaked me out. It still does when I turn around and I see these scary figures and whatnot and they just kind of sneak up on me. I’m like, Whoa! Just like, turn around, and it’s like, right there. Yeah. I usually get startled. I’ve lived with this for quite a while. I’m not scared of them, but they do startle me quite a bit. The other question people ask me is like, what is it like to hear a voice that’s not there? You know, I think that’s what most people think of with schizophrenia. Confusing. It’s confusing because I’ll turn around to react and there’s nobody there. When other people with schizophrenia hear voices, they usually hear them outside of their heads and coming different directions. So yeah, I’ll hear someone talking like behind me to the left and I’ll turn around and there’s nobody there and that will freak you out. I’ll just be, Oh, okay. That wasn’t real. A lot of also with the audio hallucinations, it doesn’t always have to be a full-on voice talking. Many people just hear like murmurs. My example is that someone has left a radio on in like another room at the house and then of course ticking, scratching in the walls, things like that. Really, overall, to me it’s confusing.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, along those same lines, what is it like to experience a delusion? And it’s probably important to explain the difference between a delusion and a hallucination, as many people do think those are the same thing.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. So hallucination meaning we’re seeing, feeling, hearing something that’s not there. A delusion, you are believing something that is not reality. That could be being paranoid that the government is watching you. That could be paranoid of your family and friends. That could be believing that you are godlike. It’s just believing something that is not true. It’s scary. It is very, very scary. And the other week I was talking with my therapist and I had to share that I had a delusion. I knew it wasn’t true. I knew. And I told her I was like, I know it’s not true. I know none of this is true. Doesn’t make me stop thinking it. I feel that I have a power inside of me and I can feel it moving through my bones. And it was like that for like about a week. It takes a lot to make me cry, and I just, I was crying, telling her because I was ashamed. I was ashamed because I’m like, I literally I just broke down. And I think it weirded her out, too, because I’m usually delightful, hilarious and funny, and I just fell apart because I didn’t want to admit that. And you think, well, Rachel, that’s not that big a deal. It is when you know it’s not real. I’m like, I know there’s nothing inside of me. But I was like, I can feel it moving in me.
Gabe Howard: How does living with schizophrenia impact your life?
Rachel Star Withers: For me again, I can’t talk for everybody. It impacts everything. Going back again to those cognitive symptoms, you know, every thought I think is filtered through schizophrenia. It’s through every single thing that I do. It’s not like, okay, sometimes I’m bad and the schizophrenia just comes out of nowhere. Really, it is a constant thing that is happening that I’m going through. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m always having a bad time. Like I said, a lot of my hallucinations are just normal. They’re not anything crazy. It’ll just be like something looking distorted, you know? And I’ll just be like, Oh, okay. Well, that’s a weird shaped bottle that doesn’t exist. It really does. It can affect a lot of how you process everything going on in the world, especially when you’re thinking about delusions. For me, I felt that power and yet at the same time I knew it wasn’t real. So you had a whole week of me feeling something inside of me and having to constantly tell myself, not real, not real, not real, not real. Having to kind of keep grounding myself on what was real, what was physically around me that I could touch and feel to try and make me not think about my bones inside vibrating.
Gabe Howard: With all of that going on and it’s sort of an extension of the how does this affect your life, are you able to work? I mean, I know you’re at work right now, so it’s kind of a dumb question. But, but sincerely, can people with schizophrenia hold down jobs?
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, they can. Now, whatever degree that is is going to be up to that person. And then, of course, how well they’re managing their schizophrenia at that time. There’s been times that I couldn’t work at all, and even now I can’t work that normal 9 to 5, 40 hours a week. I can for about two weeks, and then I get really weird. I start to spiral out of control. There’s different levels of what you can do work wise. And don’t feel bad if you’re listening to this and you have schizophrenia and you don’t work. Actually, 85% of people with schizophrenia are unemployed. However, I do encourage you that one of the best things, though, is feeling good about yourself and like you’re contributing to society. So I highly suggest part-time jobs, even volunteer work. I do a lot of volunteer work also just stuff to like get you out of the house and interacting with people. And if you’re like, Rachel, I hate people, you know, there’s like animal shelters you can volunteer at and things like that.
Gabe Howard: Now we have another type of email that we get in our email box that it’s not rude, but it’s blunt. I can see where these questions would be off-putting, but we understand that people have this confusion. They want to know. They don’t understand. And I know that many people think they are rude. But I want to be very, very clear, we understand that people are just seeking information and they’re trying to educate themselves. And I think they are powerful to consider them from the place where they come, which is confusion, not malice. I just, just want to give that little warning upfront so that we spend time on the answers rather than arguing whether they ask the question correctly. Rachel, are you ready?
Rachel Star Withers: I personally, I am always for answering these questions because usually the most bluntest questions are the ones that everybody has in their mind that they want to ask, but they’re too afraid to. So I’m all for helping with misconceptions. Let’s do it.
Gabe Howard: All right, Rachel, here we go. Are schizophrenics dangerous, violent, scary, or are they psychopaths? And a subset of that is, Rachel, have you personally ever hurt anybody, killed anybody, attacked anybody? It’s all about violence, Rachel, go.
Rachel Star Withers: It is the craziest thing when someone and it has happened to me personally in person, in person that someone got up the courage to ask me, have you ever killed anyone? And my answer is always the same. Not yet.
Gabe Howard: Yes, I know you’re being funny, but I love how you diffuse the situation. But you do add more. Correct? You don’t just say not yet and walk away. Right?
Rachel Star Withers: No, no, no.
Gabe Howard: Okay. Good
Rachel Star Withers: I’m like, not yet. But today could be the day.
Gabe Howard: Humor is healthy. She is joking, ladies and gentlemen, please don’t write us angry emails.
Rachel Star Withers: Most people with schizophrenia are not aggressive and are more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. Many times when schizophrenics are violent, it’s usually towards themselves. The other issue is that many times when they get violent is they are reacting to things they don’t understand, going on around them. Going back to those delusions and those hallucinations, if I don’t understand what’s happening to me and you come up behind me and you grabbed me trying to get me to calm down and I’m already in a delusional state, paranoid that people are after me, and now you’re grabbing me. I’m going to react. That is where we have a lot of the stuff that comes up. Now, if you’re listening, you know, me and Gabe, we like our documentaries about serial killers and true crime. Yes.
Gabe Howard: True crime podcasts are the number one podcast in America. We are not alone in this way.
Rachel Star Withers: Oh, yeah, we love it. Over and over, what you hear is they were had paranoid schizophrenia. When there’s some sort of like big shooting or something, you’ll have this random doctor come out and be like, they had paranoid schizophrenia. You’re like, okay, going back, paranoid schizophrenia doesn’t exist anymore. So you’re wrong there. But one thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the times when you have those situations, the person might have had schizophrenia, but they also have either a coexisting condition or they were using drugs. Drugs and alcohol, unfortunately, can, yes, make symptoms of schizophrenia a lot worse. I don’t drink. It’s one thing I’ve always been very, very serious about. And I think that’s just a good rule of thumb for most people, is staying in control of yourself. But yes, drugs and alcohol will make schizophrenia symptoms much worse, and it’ll make your thinking process harder to tell what’s real and what’s not.
Gabe Howard: Rachel building along that, another question that you get a lot in the misconceptions category is do schizophrenics know that they are crazy?
Rachel Star Withers: Oh, that is so common with me. I’ll have people comment on my videos and everything saying, okay, well, she’s not really schizophrenic because they wouldn’t know that. They wouldn’t know they were crazy. I’m guessing this is like from like just movies and TV. Yes, most of us know that something is wrong. We might not fully understand what, but we know that something is wrong. I always tell people that I’m getting off. I can tell that my brain has started working differently. I’m starting to become confused, believing things that aren’t correct. Now, could I be in a full psychotic episode and 100% believe those delusions? Yes. 99% of the time, no. 99% of the time I absolutely know I have schizophrenia and what is real and what’s not. However, that doesn’t stop me from seeing those things.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, another question that you get that falls in the misconception category, that is almost like it’s sort of the reverse of that. Is schizophrenia actually a spiritual gift bestowed upon you to give you extra? Like get magical powers? Is it? Have you achieved enlightenment because of schizophrenia? Is this not a negative at all, but actually a benefit?
Rachel Star Withers: Unfortunately that question is always then paired with you shouldn’t be on anti-psychotics. That’s usually an anti medication thing, saying you’re just dulling your gift. My response is always, if you saw the hallucinations I see, you wouldn’t describe it as a gift. One person asked me, Do you think you’re seeing into other realms? And I’m like, then we should be terrified of the other realms that exist. Okay. I think it’s sweet that people would like to imagine that schizophrenics are just these magical, fluffy animals, that we have some ability. But the truth is that it’s not. It’s a very serious brain disorder. And there is no, like, sugar coating you can put on it. And it can be very dangerous, I think, to talk to a person who has psychosis of any type and be like, Hey, you should stop taking your medicine and see what happens.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree with that more, Rachel. On one hand, I understand that trying to find the positive, the silver lining in the cloud. But sometimes the thing is just a thing.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Schizophrenia is an illness. It diminishes your life. It doesn’t add to it.
Rachel Star Withers: And it is very unprompted. People will email me, leave comments that are can be very aggressive, telling me that, no, your schizophrenia isn’t real. It’s actually either a demon, a gift from God. Something like they’ve seen on TV. TV really, really affects how people view so much when it comes to mental disorders.
Gabe Howard: Are you telling me that pop culture and television and the media is not the best place to get information about schizophrenia? You have just, you have blown my mind.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. Yes. There are so many bad representations. Very few, I would say correct ones. There are some correct ones though, and we try and highlight them on the show whenever we hear about someone who’s doing that.
Gabe Howard: Staying a little bit on the pop culture representation of schizophrenia. One of the things that they get somewhat right is that many people who are homeless do live with schizophrenia. Now, I’m not saying that they get the symptoms right, but we really do let a lot of people with schizophrenia down and they become homeless because they can’t get the resources that they need. And I know an email that you see all the time is, are all the homeless people schizophrenic?
Rachel Star Withers: Obviously, not all of the people who are homeless is because schizophrenia, however, a guestimate is about 20% of the homeless population. That is a big percentage. If we go back to thinking 1% of people have it and then 20% of homeless people have it, and that’s a guesstimate. These are people obviously who aren’t getting help. The percentage could be much higher. Also going back to that 85% of people with schizophrenia are unemployed. So there’s a lot kind of stacked against people with schizophrenia in that area. And if you don’t have that strong support system like I’m blessed with, like Gabe is blessed with, yeah, homelessness becomes a real situation that many people have to deal with. And we had an amazing episode on that about homelessness and schizophrenia, so please check that out. We have a credible guest who was on that show who talked about her experiences being homeless with schizophrenia.
Gabe Howard: One of the ways that pop culture portrays people living with schizophrenia is to show them talking to themselves. And our email inbox is filled with people wanting to know, do people with schizophrenia really talk to themselves? Is that true? Rachel, is that true?
Rachel Star Withers: For me. Yes, it actually, yeah, for me is. Now that’s not of course all people with schizophrenia. For one, you might see some with schizophrenia responding verbally to a voice or to a hallucination, especially me. If I turn around and one of my hallucinations is right there and I get startled, you’ll hear me go, ah! You know, I might squeal or squeak or something like, Rachel, what’s wrong with you? And I’m like, Oh. For me, I talk out loud a lot because it helps me kind of center my thoughts. Going back to those disorganized thoughts, I’ll be trying to do work or something and I can’t think straight. Everything’s becoming jumbled up or blocked, so me actually talking through the thoughts helps me do the task that I’m trying to do.
Gabe Howard: Another common portrayal of people living with schizophrenia in pop culture is the rocking back and forth. Is that how people with schizophrenia behave? The rocking back and forth, the uncontrollable movements, etc? Is that a normal schizophrenia symptoms and accurate portrayal in pop culture?
Rachel Star Withers: That answer kind of is going to be no for the most part. However, yes we talked about tardive dyskinesia is a lot of shaking and rocking, unfortunately, that comes with that. So if you’ve been treated with antipsychotics and unfortunately got that symptom of it, yes, you’re going to be shaking, rocking at times. I will start to kind of jerk back and forth and I think that looks like a rocking to people. I describe it as jerking, but yeah, I could see someone be like, Oh yeah, Rachel is rocking back and forth. It was more like my muscles were kind of like jerking me back and forth.
Gabe Howard: And we really, really hit this hard in last month’s episode.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: I strongly suggest that you check it out, because losing your hair is not a symptom of cancer. It’s a symptom of the cancer treatment.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: Rocking back and forth is not a symptom of schizophrenia. It’s a symptom of a treatment for schizophrenia. This next question isn’t represented in our email boxes too much, but I’ve seen you in public and when it’s Q&A, time and hands go up, people want to know one thing. Do you have multiple personalities? Is schizophrenia multiple personalities?
Rachel Star Withers: No, that is a completely different mental disorder called dissociative identity disorder. A lot of that goes back to pop culture. Now to my wordsmiths out there. Fun fact, so the word schizophrenia, the actual word is from Greek, the word skhizein, to split and phren, mind. So yeah, the actual definition of schizophrenia is split mind. However they meant it in your brain is kind of splitting apart, not that you were splitting into multiple personalities. So that there is a little bit like a factual weirdness there that could lead someone to be confused. However, usually when people ask me that, I highly doubt that they’re wordsmiths, and that’s the reason they were asking me.
Gabe Howard: Again, pop culture, television, movies, they’ve led us astray. I understand why people believe this.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes.
Gabe Howard: They’ve seen it represented in media for
Rachel Star Withers: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Literally decades. Before I became a mental health advocate, before I started working with you, Rachel, I believed this, too. So I want to let everybody off the hook. I understand how this misconception has sort of permeated our society, but now you know.
Rachel Star Withers: What’s interesting to think is that you can have hallucinations of different people. You can hear voices that are clearly not yours, like I said, from other directions. So it’s easy to think, okay, well, if this person can in their mind make up things that don’t exist, obviously they can become someone that doesn’t exist. So I do understand that it’s an easy transition to think that it could happen. But no, people with schizophrenia do not have multiple personalities.
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Gabe Howard: We have, as always, a great guest. And, Rachel, you interviewed Whitney Yeager, who has a wonderful project. And well, you know what? Don’t hear it from me, hear it from Rachel. Play the interview.
Rachel Star Withers: We are excited today to have Whitney Yeager with us, who is a mother, a photographer and an artist. Thank you so much for being with us today, Whitney.
Whitney Yeager: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here today.
Rachel Star Withers: Now, you did a very interesting project called the Sammy Project. But before we get into that first, tell us a little bit about you and who Sam is.
Whitney Yeager: Okay. I was able to enjoy my son for the 23 years that he was with us. He was killed a year ago, last spring by police during a psychotic episode. And in the last year I have created the Sammy Project in the wake of his passing as a way to destigmatize mental illness. Basically, it’s portraits of people who have mental health challenges or mental illness, accompanied by a personal statement. My hope is that the participants take agency over their struggles, whatever they may be. And Rachel, thank you for being one of the participants. My son Sam, when he passed away, his therapist and our family therapist both separately said that while he did not receive a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, they believe that that was what he was experiencing based on his symptoms and behavior. And so I became obsessed with learning everything I could about schizophrenia. And I tuned in to your podcast immediately after he was killed and listened to so many episodes that educated me on the differences between the different disorders, including schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia. And you educated me from top to bottom. And also on the importance of removing stigma from the conversations. Had Sammy felt comfortable asking for help, had he not viewed it as a weakness, I believe he would still be alive today. Mental illness is so misunderstood and most people don’t know the difference between mental health and mental illness. And I just want to say it’s really a privilege to be here talking with you today.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, thank you so much. And you have a very powerful story to tell. What exactly happened with Sam?
Whitney Yeager: Basically on the day that he was killed, April 3rd, he went on a hike with a friend. He also had a gun with him and they left the gun in the car during the hike, but they were going to go to a shooting range after the hike. And his friend brought with him a joint and they smoked it, which his friend told me that he immediately became disoriented, thought somebody was after them. He was delusional and paranoid and thought they were lost in the woods, like immediately had a psychotic episode is basically what he described. And they went straight back to the car. They got into an argument and his friend asked him to get out of the car and left him on the side of the road with his gun in the case.
Whitney Yeager: And his friend called 911 and told the police they’d just been on this hike. And he brought a joint and they smoked it and he believed he was hallucinating and that Sammy needed help. The police arrived and surrounded him and he refused to drop the gun. And then he did eventually get into the prone position, and he fired in the direction of the police way above their heads because the bullets hit the interstate signs. But then he was shot and died instantly. I requested to watch all the body cam footage because I needed to know exactly what happened. And obviously the final moment was terrible and tragic. Hard as a mother to watch your son be killed in the street. But the worst moment of the 12 minutes of body cam footage was the very first moment when the police showed up because he was sitting on the side of the road with his gun in the case on the ground next to him. And they showed up with guns pointing at him, screaming and yelling. No one attempted to just talk to him. And I really believe if somebody, anyone would have said, hey, I hear you’re having a bad day, how’s it going? Or just talked to him that he could have gotten help and would be alive today.
Whitney Yeager: Now I hold my son accountable for his actions. I do believe he caused his own death. I know the police did what they were trained. I don’t blame the police for what happened. They’re not trained to do that. You know, police department, they just aren’t taught ways to de-escalate. And it’s a missed opportunity. I believe that Sammy would be here had someone just spoken to him in a calm voice. It was just a perfect storm of high potency pot with a psychotic episode and him carrying his rifle. It was so many different factors coming in together at one time which led to his death. That’s the whole story and one that I think should be told, because this is not an unusual story. This happens every day across America. There’s some altercation between police and people who need mental help. They don’t need yelling and screaming and to be escalated in whatever state they find themselves in. There was no attempt to de-escalate what was going on or just to talk calmly to him. I wish that my son asked for help. I wish that he felt comfortable. But that’s in the past. And right now, if I can just help people who are struggling to realize it’s the strongest thing they can do to ask for help, then that makes the world a better place.
Rachel Star Withers: Why do you think that Sam didn’t ask for help?
Whitney Yeager: I think he viewed it as weakness. I think he was afraid and he wanted to be strong. He was 23 years old and he wanted to handle his own life as a young man and be independent. And he was also a very private person. He had a lot of friends. He had academic scholarships. He was one semester from graduating from college with a degree in political science. I mean, he was a smart, capable young man. But he, I don’t know. I think he just, he wanted to be a man and he wanted to be strong and independent is the only thing that I can understand. He felt vulnerable. You know, I mean, I think he believed his delusions when he had them. And I think he was paranoid a lot of the time. He was never comfortable within himself.
Rachel Star Withers: Tell us what exactly is the Sammy Project?
Whitney Yeager: The Sammy Project was an exhibition on the anniversary of his death and a photo gallery in downtown Denver, which we had a great turnout and there was a good article written about it. The exhibit will be a traveling exhibit. It’s going to be shown not just on the anniversary of his passing, but also it will continue to be shown at various places around Colorado. And it’s a way for people to be vulnerable and share their stories and share who they are as people, their passions, hobbies and interests, but also what their mental health struggles are. And as a way to release them from any self stigma or shame as a way to empower them and for them to take agency over their lives. All the people are young. So I just have a new participant join the project who’s 14 and up to, I think mid to late thirties. You know, I think that it’s going to be the younger generation that’s going to spur change, social change and it’s being sponsored by NAMI right now, which is wonderful.
Whitney Yeager: National Alliance on Mental Illness is my sponsor. I found out about them because I was going to their weekly parent support groups for family members who live with people who have mental illness and told them about the project and they immediately decided to back me on it. So wish I had reached out to them earlier when Sammy was still alive, but I just didn’t know about it. Right now it’s the number of participants is growing and you can see them on the website which is www.TheSammyProject.com. People can message me through the website if they want to participate. Over the last year as the participants have put themselves on this website and then with the actual exhibition, great things have been happening for them in their personal lives and I think it has allowed them to let go of their struggles a little bit and move forward in their lives, which has made me really happy.
Rachel Star Withers: One of the big themes of The Sammy Project is reducing stigma around serious mental disorders. Why is that so important?
Whitney Yeager: Well, it’s so important because the American Psychiatric Association states that stigma and discrimination can contribute to worsening symptoms and reduce likelihood of getting treatment. And I definitely saw that in Sammy’s decision making towards the end of his life. He rejected help. He rejected getting treatment and his symptoms only got worse. Mental Health America (MHA) placed Colorado as last or in 51st place in this year in 2022 on various statistics related to prevalence of illness and access to care. There’s just so few hospital beds in Colorado, and the one hospital that we chose for Sam during his first psychotic episode was extremely crowded and maybe not the best match for him as a person, but there weren’t any options.
Rachel Star Withers: What type of reactions have you received from the project?
Whitney Yeager: A lot of support from community on social media. And with the article that was written, very positive support. I mean, people are saying, oh, you’re brave. This is a great tribute to your son and a good way to honor his life. And I want to honor my son’s life. But most of all, I just want, I want people to know it’s okay to be vulnerable and that it takes strength to be vulnerable and for conversation to be more accepting of mental illness and for people to be open about talking about mental health the same way they talk about diabetes or high blood pressure or any other ailments. There is a stigma around it. I think it is slowly being removed and with mental health being such a hot topic right now around the country. I just I really, really want for these people to be pioneers, as you are, Rachel and Gabe, in making social change and in educating people. It’s not unusual for people to struggle, that it’s actually quite common and for families to know that this can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background or your race or religion. It can happen to anyone.
Rachel Star Withers: And to our listeners out there, if you’re interested in sharing your story, if you have a serious mental disorder like schizophrenia, you can go to TheSammyProject.com, and you can actually message Whitney about that. And it’s really amazing. You can see all the different portraits that she has in the exhibit. And you as you click on them, the different stories come up and it is different mental disorders, it’s not just schizophrenia, but there are some very powerful stories on there.
Whitney Yeager: Thank you. And I also want to just mention that you don’t need to be in Colorado to participate in the project. I wish I could travel to go and visit everyone to take their portrait in person. But that’s just not feasible at this time. So what I ask is I give some guidelines for the kind of portrait that I’m looking for, and then I curate it.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Whitney. This has been a very intense interview hearing your story, but also very encouraging. And I encourage everyone out there to check out The Sammy Project.
Whitney Yeager: Thank you. Thanks, Rachel, and thank you, Gabe. It was really, really great to talk to you both today and such an honor to be here. And I appreciate you letting me share this story. I really do. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, that was a very powerful story. And what were your feelings going through this? Because I was sort of identifying with her. But I imagine there’s some parts of you that would identify with her son?
Rachel Star Withers: Yes. And I think anybody who has had a psychotic episode will kind of connect the same way and think, yeah, I was confused. I, I didn’t fully understand what was going on. What I love about her project is if you go and check it out is the pictures that she’s taken and that she has done these stories with, they’re very normal people. And then you click on it, you read this very powerful story of what this person is going through, a very serious mental disorder. And yes, I am one of, one of the photos. I am on there.
Rachel Star Withers: If you’re out there and you have been looking for a creative way to help get rid of stigma for the schizophrenia community, contact Whitney and you maybe could be part of her project. Definitely check her out, though, and see those other people because one thing you’ll notice when you go through her photos, you’re not alone. This thing that you feel shame about. Talking about me with the weird bone thing I was telling my therapist. Therapist, like, I shouldn’t be upset. Like, that’s the whole point of her is for me to tell her things. And I just, I broke down crying, having to admit that out loud. Once I admitted it out loud, I felt so much better. I just it was like a weight off my shoulders. And I still had the delusion. It didn’t go away by any means, but I wasn’t as scared, I guess. And it was good because then she could track it and ask me the following week, Hey, so how are we doing on that delusion? And for me, that that’s like just a small way of breaking down stigma, is talking about these things and letting people know that, no, we’re not running around drooling on ourselves and attacking people.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, as you know, the whole idea behind Inside Schizophrenia and of course, the whole idea behind your work, you being public, is to show people a more robust view of what it means to live with schizophrenia. Many people only see people living with schizophrenia in crisis. They see people living with schizophrenia at their absolute worst, at their worst moments. Whereas the rest of the time, when you’re just going to work, when you’re just going to the grocery store, when you’re walking your dog, when you’re just hanging, you don’t look like you have schizophrenia. So I understand how people get this idea that schizophrenia is only a crisis. It’s only this very, very short window of behavior. When you’re actually just a fully formed person. I know we’re near the end of the show, but the biggest, biggest, biggest question that our email box sees is from family members, friends, loved ones, people who care and love somebody with schizophrenia who generally is not doing well. And the question that they ask is, why won’t my loved ones seek help? Why won’t my loved one get help? Why doesn’t my loved one want to get better? Why won’t my loved one take their medication? It’s all part and parcel of the same question, and I think it’s super, super relevant because people are desperate. They’re desperate to help those whom they love.
Rachel Star Withers: Daily I get an email and that that’s listed in it. It’s a loved one telling me a situation and asking me why won’t they get help? I’ve tried. I’ve tried to, you know, this, this, and this, and kind of goes back to it can be very scary to get help. It can be very scary to admit that something is mentally wrong with you. Having to accept that is a lot. Again, it’s not like you have an infection or something that you can show people. It’s not, you know, an obvious thing. And it can be very scary. And a lot of people, no, they don’t get help until they are in a psychotic episode where there is no more pretending. It has escalated to a point where police or involuntary commitment has happened or they themselves have just lost a lot and finally had to accept that they needed help. Something I wanted to share before our wonderful interview with Whitney, she actually talked to me and that was one of the things she asked me. Rachel, how was it that you were able to notice you had schizophrenia and go get help for it? Whereas so many people like her son didn’t reach out for help? What made me different than him? And it was very powerful thing to think about because I told her absolutely nothing. I said a lot of it is luck, a lot of it is just luck of when that psychotic episode, that first one that pushed a lot of people to get help like me when it happened, what happened. I told her, you know, very easily what happened to him could have happened to me.
Rachel Star Withers: We’ve had so many amazing guests on our show. We’ve had Bethany in the homelessness episode, we had Lloyd in the incarceration episode, and his story is incredible. And I don’t listen to them and think, Oh, those poor people, they made bad decisions. I think, Oh, that could have been me. Every person with schizophrenia I talked to and they share their story of what happened, I always think, Oh, wow, yeah, that could have been me. And it really it was just luck that I didn’t end up in certain ways. And that’s the scariest thing, is that, yes, schizophrenia, it’s a scary thing to admit. It’s a scary thing that you might think you have. And if you’re listening to this wondering, do I have schizophrenia? Do I have like a problem that I need to get help for? If you’re wondering it, then the answer is yes. You need to go and seek some sort of help. And don’t worry, they’re not going to like grab you and lock you up right away. That’s always the biggest fear is once I admit that I see things that aren’t there, they’re going to lock me away. I’m terrified of that. They’re not going to do that. OK? They’re not going to do that. Just start with finding a doctor, a counselor, anybody that you can talk to and start getting help in some way.
Rachel Star Withers: A lot of people don’t feel the full ability to just jump right in headfirst and tell the doctors everything that’s going on. But I always suggest write it down beforehand. That way you don’t chicken out when you get there. And then worst-case scenario, you can just hand them the piece of paper and be like, Yeah, so this is what’s been happening. If you don’t feel comfortable saying, Hey, I keep seeing monsters, write it out and just hand it to them. All of us, we deserve to have a life. We deserve to like do stuff and have friends and family and enjoy things, have a job, contribute to society, go out and like party, go to concerts, and you need to get help to get your schizophrenia managed to be able to do a lot of those things. And let me tell you something, you have to be so brave to make that first step. There is nothing weak about you if you get help. If you have the bravery to go to another person and tell them that you’re seeing things, hearing things that aren’t there, man, that’s one of the bravest things you can do, hands down. So please don’t. Don’t think I don’t want people to see me as weak. No. It takes so much bravery to do that.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that. I, I love what you said about if you think something’s wrong, get it checked out. It’s a powerful statement. So many people believe that they can’t seek psychiatric help or mental health care unless they’re positive that they know what’s wrong. But we don’t feel this way about physical health care. We’ll go to our doctors, be like, I don’t feel good. What’s wrong? I just told you I don’t feel good. You figure it out. You can do the exact same thing for mental health. I don’t feel good. What’s wrong? I don’t know. It’s up for you to figure it out. This is what experts are for.
Rachel Star Withers: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Inside Schizophrenia. Please like, share, subscribe and rate our podcast and we’ll see you next time here on Inside Schizophrenia, a Healthline Media
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Schizophrenia, a podcast from Psych Central and Healthline Media. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/IS or on your favorite podcast player. Your host, Rachel Star Withers, can be found online at RachelStarLive.com. Co-host Gabe Howard can be found online at gabehoward.com. Thank you and we’ll see you next time.