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Schizophrenogenic Mothers and Mental Illness March 13, 2011

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in mental illness, Schizophrenia.
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In reading a mainstream article in a mainstream publication about Eleanor Owen, the founder of Washington State’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), I  was shocked that mental illness, especially schizophrenia, had come out of the closet enough to warrant front page news on a Sunday morning. The article made reference to a term that I had heard once before. Schizophrenogenic mother was, according to a March 13, 2011 article in Pacific Northwest Magazine, a title that Eleanor Owen was tagged with back in the late 1960’s. What, I wondered, was a schizophrenogenic mother?

It turns out that  “schizophrenogenic mother” was the term given to the mother of a schizophrenic. It meant “a woman who was blamed by psychiatrists for her child’s schizophrenia”. Viewed as the cause of her offspring’s illness, she was blamed because of her poor parenting skills for her child’s terrible affliction. In fact, up until the late 1970’s this was mainstream thought in the world of psychiatry. How did this come to be?

In the early 1950’s, a man named Dr. Theodore Lidz wrote a book called Schizophrenia and the Family. In that book, he expounded his theory that schizophrenogenic mothers were responsible for their child’s affliction. They were, the theory went, too self-absorbed and dominating, and the result of their behavior was that their child became schizophrenic. Other psychiatrists jumped on the bandwagon, and the theory took on a life of its own.

This theory was the dominating one from the mid-1950’s through the late 1970’s. In fact, even as he lay on his deathbed in 2001, Dr. Lidz continued to maintain that psychiatry was going in the wrong direction by focusing on medication rather than psychotherapy in the treatment of this disorder.

The results this mainstream thought that the mothers were the problem was threefold.

First of all, the parents of schizophrenics had a tremendous quantity of guilt added to their already heavy burden of dealing with their child’s symptoms.  Rather than obtain the support of their friends and families as they went through the trying times of dealing with the symptoms of the illness, the parents, especially the mothers, became social pariahs.

Additionally, it goes without saying that if the child’s childhood was causing the illness, then the solution was to remove the child from the household so that he could “heal”. Instead of getting the needed psychological support of their parents, these children were taken away from them. It goes without saying that the emotional damage done to those children was enormous.

Lastly, research money for schizophrenia dried up. Why bother looking for answers that you already have?

Fortunately for the rest of us, a few of these “schizophrenogenic” parents banded together, convinced that psychiatry had it wrong. As the band of parents got larger and larger, they formed a formal group, dedicated to getting a better understanding of mental illnesses. In Washington State, Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill was born, with the help of Eleanor Owen. Eventually this group would change its name and team up with others across the country. You might know this group as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Partly as a result of the efforts of this group, in the late 1970’s  it became fashionable once again to actually search for answers. What was the cause of schizophrenia? Why did it appear to run in families? What are effective treatments of the symptoms of the illness?  Can there ever be a cure for it? Money and effort was expended to help answer these questions and more.

The result is that almost everyone in the world now believes that schizophrenia is a brain chemistry disorder rather than a sign of a broken childhood. Parents are once again free to give comfort to their ill children. They’re not social pariahs any more. They aren’t blamed for their child’s illness. And drugs have been found to help relieve many if not most of the symptoms of the illness. People who were once relegated to a life of horrible symptoms are now able to live a worthwhile life.

Thank you, NAMI, and thank you, Eleanor Owen.

(Note: This story is documented in the PBS documentary When Medicine Got It Wrong)



1. troy - March 13, 2011

It always amazes me how we don’t have to go that far back to see how ‘backward’ we once were. Unfortunately, I doubt that’s ever going to change. Such is ‘life’ I suppose.

2. mark - November 23, 2011

I also read that schizophrenia is a catch diagnosis for every body that doesn’t fit in any other category. I don’t suppose anyone considered that when they decided that abusive parents couldn’t cause mental illness. I got a mom that was saying to me over and over about a hundred times a week for the first ten years of my life “you just get bigger and dumber” in an ugly pejorative tone. It did not help me any at all. she is always lieing and promising me all sorts of shit and stealing the minute I turn my back. I just go way from her and try to be happy any way but it is tough.

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