Last week, I had the opportunity to report from SAMHSA’s annual Voice Awards in Hollywood and to interview one of the consumer leadership award winners. Frederick Frese, Ph.D. is a psychologist with more than 40 years experience in public mental health care. Until 1995, Frese was Director of Psychology for 15 years at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital. Now he is the Coordinator of the Summit County Recovery Project, serving recovering consumers in and around Akron, OH.
Dr. John M. Grohol: So you’ve had a distinguished career, but it all seemed to start with your diagnosis of schizophrenia when you joined the Marines.
Dr. Frederick Frese: Actually, I was in the Marine Corps for about four years when I had the diagnosis and was discharged. Then spent 10 years, in 10 different hospitals, being hospitalized and re‑hospitalized, at one point being committed as insane. Then I went back to school, got my doctorate, became a psychologist functioning in a state hospital. I was actually director of psychology. I was being told not to tell anybody about my condition.
But one day, and thanks in large part to the last lady you just interviewed, Pam Hodge… She changed the laws in Ohio and encouraged persons in recovery to sit on mental health boards and become open about their conditions. So I did.
Since then, I’ve had quite a career. I’ve given over 2,000 talks. I’ve had movie contracts. No movie, but I’ve had a couple contracts!
Dr. Grohol: How was it that you had an interest in psychology and decided to go get your doctorate?
Dr. Frese: The truth of the matter is that I just happened to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But I really wanted to be an international businessman. I actually went to this graduate school called Thunderbird in Phoenix, then went out and got a job. But shortly thereafter I had another breakdown, so that pretty much closed all the doors to me, except working in the back wards of a prison psychiatric security hospital. So I took the job, and I’ve been essentially in that line of work ever since.
Dr. Grohol: Did you find it particularly challenging to apply and to be a grad student, given your background, your history, your diagnosis and stuff?
Dr. Frese: Well, I didn’t tell them.
Dr. Grohol: Because if you had told them…
Dr. Frese: It’s highly unlikely that I would have been accepted. Then when I had breakdowns while I was in school, there was some question about whether I would be allowed to continue. But they were very clever, the senior professors. They sort of spread the word around that I had an alcohol problem. That was sort of my cover.
Dr. Grohol: So alcoholism is acceptable, but having schizophrenia would not be.
Dr. Frese: Oh, no. But now there are a few of us that have… In fact, I just wrote an article identifying 10 psychiatrists, psychologists, and a few other doctoral folks in mental health with schizophrenia. So I’m not the only one.
Dr. Grohol: Oh, absolutely not. I think that’s the message of hope that your story brings to so many people.
Dr. Frese: Well, I would hope so. I meet so many judges and professors with the same disorder, but they won’t tell anybody. Much as Ellen Sachs would not tell anybody until she got tenure. And that meant the world.
Dr. Grohol: The floodgates opened.
Dr. Frese: And I was pretty quiet about it until I was reasonably close to retirement. So there’s certain risk to it.
Dr. Grohol: It still seems to be one of the more stigmatized conditions.
Dr. Frese: Oh, I think I have a lot of agreement with that statement.
Dr. Grohol: I think one of the confusing components of schizophrenia is the false belief that it’s a diagnosis that imprisons you for life.
Dr. Frese: Yeah. And that was the belief of most professionals when I first came down with this. I was told I would not recover and I would spend the rest of my life in state hospitals, essentially. But things have changed.
Dr. Grohol: Yeah, absolutely. Is there any particular type of treatment or anything that you did that really was the main thing was effective for you?
Dr. Frese: For me, medications have been helpful, certainly. And once I got married 33 years ago, I haven’t had another hospitalization. I’ve had breakdowns, but I could stay home and be cared for. And it is an episodic disorder for most of us. We tend to be able to recover fairly well, with some residual symptoms. Short‑term memory problems tend to come with the contract here.
Dr. Grohol: So what do you think is the reason that there seems to be so much misinformation and these beliefs about this disorder that continue to…
Dr. Frese: Well, for one thing, it’s you guys in the media. Your movies. The top villains of the movies of the whole 20th century, covered by AFI, we took the number one spot with Hannibal Lecter, and the number two slot, Norman Bates. I mean, about half of those people were mentally ill. That’s been the image. But fortunately we’ve got “A Beautiful Mind,” and more recently, “The Soloist” and some big‑time, silver‑screen portrayals of us that are more realistic.
Dr. Grohol: Yep, I agree.
Dr. Frese: There’s also a big spectrum of degree of disability. And so, as in the “The Soloist,” there’s some of us that are very disabled. And as in “A Beautiful Mind,” some of us can function fairly well, even with the disorders.
Dr. Grohol: Where would you put yourself on that spectrum?
Dr. Frese: Oh, I’m not that disabled. I’ve got the condition, no question about it. But I’m very fortunate not to have some of the difficulties of the more seriously disabled. And I’m well‑educated, I’ve got lots of schooling. When you can’t get a job, you find yourself going to school a lot.
Dr. Grohol: And some people never stop. What was one of the accomplishments, or some of the accomplishments, that you were most proud of while serving as director of psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital?
Dr. Frese: Oh, that’s very… I think probably the biggest thing was when the new drug, clozapine, came out. And it’s still considered the gold standard. As the psychology director, I was able to have our psychologists… We had maybe 700 or 800 patients then, actually become the people who gave the instruments to measure whether or not individuals were improving from the drug. And we found out that, lo and behold, this drug worked as we hoped it did. I think that would be the major in my 15 years as psychology director there.
But there were so many changes, as we got the folks out of the state hospitals. We’ve gone from over a half million, when I first started out, to about 50,000 nationally now. So big changes.
Dr. Grohol: Besides what you just mentioned, has there been other important of exciting advances in this area of mental health treatment/research that you’ve been excited about?
Dr. Frese: One thing you could really help us with… And I just had a one‑on‑one conversation with a director of NIH last weekend. Marijuana, we now know, definitely increased the probability of your coming down with schizophrenia. And increases difficulty with relapse. But that word is not getting out there. Every now and then the New York Times will say something. That needs to get out better. All you have to do is Google “schizophrenia and marijuana” and you’ll see a plethora of studies. It increases the probability of one percent overall to maybe two, three or four percent.
That needs to… That’s a recent finding, in the last five years. But it’s a major finding. So that would be very helpful.
Dr. Grohol: OK. And what are you doing now at the Summit Valley Recovery Project? What is that?
Dr. Frese: The Summit County… Summit County is Akron’s county. We’ve got a little over half a million folks there. We have a lot of folks with serious mental illness. I run a recovery group every week. And I also liaison with a couple of consumer‑operated services. One of them, we hand out, make available, educational materials, getting the word out that people can recover. And actually in the National Public Television program that we just released about a year ago, we had the Supreme Court Justice Breyer, Nobel Laureate Eric Handel, Pulitzer Prize… We had lots of big guns.
I pointed out there that what we do is have a lending library type thing, run by folks in recovery. And we give them 3‑hour‑a‑week jobs paying minimum wage, so it doesn’t cost too much. But it puts somebody into a job, so then they can have some pride. Then they’re going to have two units of it, so it’s a six‑hour week.
Right now, because of the economic situation, we can’t really fund things without paying attention to cost, as you could a few years ago. I think the initial interest that we’ve got in that area is something that’s gotten a lot of positive attention. It’s certainly been on the program that we had.
Dr. Grohol: That’s great. Thank you very much for your time today.
Dr. Frese: Thank you.