College students are at the prime age for the onset of schizophrenia. At Penn State University Park, senior Cecilia McGough is starting the world’s first nonprofit specifically supporting college students suffering from schizophrenia.
Early on in her college career, Cecilia McGough was working a job in downtown State College. But her schizophrenia was causing her to miss shifts at work. Up until this point, she had been giving her boss excuses like food poisoning or a faulty alarm.
“I realized I needed to be upfront with her," McGough said. "So, I took the risk, and I told her that I had schizophrenia, and her reaction was, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of schizophrenia. I’ve watched Criminal Minds.’ I was like, ‘Woah, woah, woah! The good guys get schizophrenia too.’”
McGough said schizophrenia is often misrepresented in the media. The mental health problem acts as the plot twist in the movie or the reason behind a murder in the TV show. This leads to a general discomfort and lack of understanding of schizophrenia in real life.
McGough said schizophrenia is also one of the mental health problems people find hard to relate to. With depression, people at least understand what sadness and loneliness feels like. With schizophrenia, people have trouble understanding what it is like to hallucinate or hear voices, which are common symptoms.
“We all see, hear, and feel things that aren’t there when we’re dreaming, and I just happen to be someone who can’t turn off my nightmares even though I’m awake," McGough said. "And that’s not a reason to be scared of me.”
Having schizophrenia has affected McGough’s college career. She works with her doctors and the Student Disability Resources office at Penn State to get the help she needs. For example, she has her exams set up so she only sees one test question at a time. This way, she can leave and come back whenever she needs to.
“That’s helped me immensely because before I had those accommodations, I would start a test, I’ll be doing good, and then I would start hallucinating. And then I would perform poorly after I start hallucinating and that would drastically change my score on the test,” McGough said.
McGough wants to help students like her succeed by making resources and accommodations easily accessible.
This is why she is starting Students With Schizophrenia, a nonprofit organization that empowers students with schizophrenia and educates the public on a mental health issue that people often shy away from. She said it started out as just a club idea, but she realized there was a need for something bigger that could help students around the world.
“We just are really looking into different ways to help our students succeed, because that’s what we want — we want our students to reach the goals we know they are capable of," McGough said. "They’re just in a system right now that isn’t accommodating for them.”
In addition to outreach, the nonprofit will provide financial, academic and support services to students with schizophrenia worldwide. The nonprofit is set to launch this fall.
McGough said she isn’t struggling to find enthusiastic individuals who want to help make her nonprofit a reality.
When Abdul Al-kaf first heard McGough speak about having schizophrenia, he was blown away. He used to think people with schizophrenia were people who had lost their minds completely and could not function. Now, as the future president of the Penn State Students With Schizophrenia club, he wants to do everything in his power to remove the stigma. Al-kaf doesn’t have schizophrenia himself, but he has ADHD and can understand the loneliness a person with mental health problems can feel.
“Being part of the organization that will connect the isolated human with the world I think is going to make the most impact ever," Al-kaf said. "Building that simple bridge will save lives, will make our world way healthier mentally and physically.”
McGough outlined her hopes for change at Penn State during her TED Talk at the TEDxPSU conference last February.
“Here at Penn State, we have to show that we are here for our students, we are talking about mental health and we are not afraid to talk about schizophrenia," McGough said during her talk. "My name is Cecilia McGough. I have schizophrenia, and I am not a monster. Thank you.”
Beyond Penn State, McGough is trying to change what people around the globe think of schizophrenia. To meet this goal, she has a book entitled, “I Am Not a Monster: Schizophrenia,” in the works.