Portrayal of Schizophrenia on Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black is a popular and award-winning series on Netflix. The series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, about her experiences at a minimum-security federal prison and the prisoners that she met while incarcerated. One character that stood out the most in the series was Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. In the series Suzanne Warren is portrayed as intelligent but lacking in social skills. She is also prone to emotional outbursts when agitated and earned her character the nickname “Crazy Eyes.

” The character also suffers from hallucinations and delusions, due to mental illness. However, the portrayal of her disorder in the series is often exaggerated and is also vilified when her character is struggling to control her emotions. In contrast, studies have shown that the majority of the people who suffers from schizophrenia improved overtime with treatment and only a minority still continues to experience the disorder (D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. M. Sue, S. Sue, 2016, p.


Historically, schizophrenia was first identified by Dr. Emile Kreapelin in 1887. He described it then as a discrete mental illness. Early theories thought that mental disorders were caused by evil possession of the body. At the time, it was believed that the treatment was to exorcise demons through various means. The treatment ranges from harmless to dangerous and sometimes deadly means, such as exposing the patient to certain types of music to the releasing of evil spirits by drilling holes in the patient’s skull (Burton, 2012). Today, much in known about the cause of the illness, which improved the treatment for people who suffer from schizophrenia.

Medications are the foundation of schizophrenia treatment and antipsychotic drugs are the most commonly prescribed drug. Furthermore, extensive studies of schizophrenia have also identified that a person with a biological predisposition to schizophrenia can increase their risk when exposed to unstable social environment (D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. M. Sue, S. Sue, 2016, p. 312). With this in mind, Suzanne Warren’s prison environment increased her risk for emotional outburst. Prisoners lack mental stimulation because of long hours of social isolation, which contributes to feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety. In addition, Suzanne’s character is also easily coerced, due to the fact that she easily trust people who shows interest her, even if that person has a positive or negative intentions towards her.

Schizophrenia is caused by many different factors. The multipath model of schizophrenia explains that heredity, physiological characteristics, cognitive process, and social adversities should all be considered as a basis for a person to develop schizophrenia since these dimensions interact with one another (D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. M. Sue, S. Sue, 2016, p. 308). Comparatively, we look at Suzanne Warren’s development of schizophrenia and the different factors that contributed to her illness. In the series, her character is African- American who was adopted by a Caucasian family and was raised in the suburbs. Her adoptive mother wanted her to excel at everything she did to prove that she was as good as everyone else. Sadly, the constant pressure only made her psychological problems worse. Given her character background, we know that she was adopted by an affluent family who supported her and grew up in a stable environment but her biological predisposition to illness became a much larger factor in the development of her schizophrenia. The effect of this portrayal to a person with mental illness can be profound. It can affect their self- esteem, help- seeking behaviors, medication adherence, and overall recovery (Stuart, 2006). Furthermore, the media often over dramatize and distort the image of mental illness to emphasize its dangerousness and criminality.

The symptoms associated with schizophrenia spectrum disorders fall into four categories: positive symptoms, psychomotor abnormalities, cognitive symptoms, and negative symptoms (D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. M. Sue, S. Sue, 2016, p. 301). Suzanne Warren’s character exhibits hallucinations, delusion, and sometimes disordered thinking, which are a positive symptom of schizophrenia. In the series, Suzanne Warren often exhibit visual and auditory hallucinations. Whenever her hallucinations happen in the show, it is portrayed with a comedic effect. This portrayal promotes stigma and discrimination toward people with mental illness, which make it seem like these symptoms of schizophrenia should not be taken seriously. Another symptom the her character exhibits is delusion, more specifically erotomania. Her character was introduced in series as an obsessive admirer of the protagonist Piper Chapman. Suzanne displays possessive behavior towards Piper and even gave her the nickname ‘Dandelion’ because of her blonde hair. Suzanne also requested to become Piper’s bunkmate to be closer to her, even though Piper constantly resist her advances. This portrayal models a negative reaction towards the mentally ill, including fear, rejection, and ridicule (Stuart, 2006). Also, the television portrayals does not try to inform its viewers that the people who suffer from mental illness can recover and become productive members of society.

Prognosis for schizophrenia is variable and is associated with premorbid levels of functioning. Many individuals with schizophrenia experience minimal lasting impairment and recover enough to lead relatively productive lives (D. Sue, D. W. Sue, D. M. Sue, S. Sue, 2016, p. 323). The diagnosis for schizophrenia requires a medical professional to rule out other mental health disorders and to make sure that the symptoms that the patient is exhibiting are not due to substance abuse, medication, or medical condition. A medical professional can determine if the s patient has schizophrenia by conducting a physical exam, which checks for any related complications. Test and screenings of alcohol and drugs, for a more thorough testing, a doctor may request an MRI or a CT scan. Psychiatric evaluation is done by a mental health professional by observation of appearance and behavior. They may also ask the patient about family and personal history. Lastly, a mental health professional will use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder to summarize their findings and inform the patient their diagnosis. Unfortunately, the quality and access to mental health care in prison is inadequate, often the budget is cut for mental health services in prison. As a result, a great portions of the prison population is not receiving treatment for mental health conditions (Gonzalez & Connell, 2014).

The show highlights the inadequate conditions that the prisoners with mental health illness has to go through in order to get help or medication. In Suzanne’s case, she often misses the medication she needed due to the lack of funding or she is thrown to segregation, instead of seeing a mental health professional to address her needs. This moment in the series help viewers see the harsh reality that people with mental illness suffer when they are incarcerated. In fact, more people who suffer mental illness are incarcerated, rather than sent to a mental institution, hospital, or a rehabilitation center. Correctional facilities in the United States are often considered to be the largest provider of mental health services (Gonzalez & Connell, 2014).

Schizophrenia requires lifelong treatment, even when symptoms have decreased. It is because when left untreated, a person might relapse and begin to exhibit signs of positive symptoms. The best outcome is a treatment that combines medications with psychosocial therapy which can help manage the condition. In some cases, hospitalization may be needed. An experienced psychiatrist in treating schizophrenia is best to facilitate the treatment. Building a treatment team that includes a psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse and possibly a case manager may greatly increase a patient’s chance of recovery from schizophrenia. It is also important to keep in mind the patient’s ability to tolerate any antipsychotic agent prescribed and the patient’s successful management of any side- effects that arise (Bioque, 2015). In Suzanne Warren’s case, her prison environment does not help her condition, often times her fellow inmates purposely make her angry and manipulate her for personal gain. She also does not have a treatment team that will support her to fully recover from schizophrenia. It will be considered a luxury to have this kind of support in prison. The prison system works at a minimum to provide her the medication she needs. All they want is for her to be well enough to function in the prison system. For this reason, mentally ill characters are usually filmed alone with close- up or extreme shots, reinforcing their isolation and dislocation from other characters (Stuart, 2006).

All things considered, the media should not underestimate their influence towards the portrayal of people with mental illness. In fact, they should help to improve public education and awareness to decrease the stigma towards people suffering from mental illness. The show does an excellent job in highlighting the poor and inhumane conditions that correctional facilities put prisoners through, however the portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren mental illness has negative implications. Her character is often short fused and lashes out at anyone, at any time. She is portrayed as difficult to manage and needs the help of others to be able to self- regulate. In reality, all Suzanne Warren’s character wants is it to be included, to make friends, and be valued.

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