‘I am not a Monster’
Cecilia McGough has been making a global impact through viral videos and interviews about her experiences with schizophrenia and mental health advocacy before even officially launching the social business Students with Schizophrenia.
McGough contemplated committing suicide her freshman year of college after years of living with symptoms of schizophrenia. McGough chose not to be another statistic and vowed to prevent others from being defeated by their mental illness.
McGough originally studied astrophysics at Penn State. However, she discovered her passion for mental health advocacy and has founded Students with Schizophrenia. She recently changed her major to Health Policy Administration to pursue her ambition. McGough says Students with Schizophrenia is the first organization on any college campus to focus on students with schizophrenia. The organization has a goal of eliminating the stigma that follows schizophrenia and those who have it.
“The majority of people with schizophrenia are good guys,” McGough says.
According to the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published to PsyCom.net, an online resource for mental health conditions, the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia includes the characteristic symptoms that are present for a significant portion of time during a one month period including two or more of the following: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, catatonic behavior or negative symptoms (i.e. lack of motivation).
McGough hopes to build a community and support system like she has at Penn State. She says strong personal relationships are “empowering” for students with schizophrenia.
“Support networks are key,” McGough says. “If I didn’t have the support network at Penn State then I really don’t feel like I would’ve been confident to maybe even found Students with Schizophrenia. I probably would’ve just dropped out and that would’ve been the end of my story.”
McGough has met a multitude of supportive friends during her time at Penn State as a student and while forming Students with Schizophrenia.
"I just see her as my friend," Abdul Al-kaf, a senior at Penn State studying Business and Liberal Arts, says.
Students with Schizophrenia is growing at a rapid pace without even being officially launched. McGough was recently featured on “Special Book by Special Kids,” an internet vlog focused on informing the world about mental and physical disabilities that McGough personally admires in November. The video has since gone viral on Facebook with over five million views. McGough’s Facebook page, “I Am Not A Monster: Schizophrenia” has over 11,000 followers while her Ted Talk of the same name has over a million views on YouTube as of December 2017.
She plans to travel to other countries to speak about her experiences. Over winter, she will be going to India for the first time. She says it's not the the travel that concerns her, she’s more nervous about meeting her boyfriend’s parents while there.
McGough says the reactions to Students with Schizophrenia have been positive from both those with and without schizophrenia. While promoting Students with Schizophrenia at the HUB-Robeson Center during Mental Health and Wellness Week at Penn State, individuals signed a banner pledging their allegiance and support for their peers with schizophrenia.
She says allies for mental health and schizophrenia are incredibly important to her cause. “They’re helping give us a voice,” McGough says.
She wants to launch Students with Schizophrenia when all proper resources including financial aid and academic assistance are available to students. However, she does take it personally when someone succumbs to their schizophrenia symptoms and takes their own life.
According to research published by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia, suicide is the number one cause of premature death for those with schizophrenia with an estimated 10 to 13 percent of individuals committing suicide.
“I have this problem of getting overly attached to individuals,” McGough says. “Especially since I’m founding something to help people who have schizophrenia, I often feel guilt around their death. And I also can relate.”
McGough says she remembers speaking with a class at Penn State and found out afterwards a student in the class had committed suicide because of their schizophrenia symptoms.
"I was too late for her," McGough says.
According to McGough, every experience with schizophrenia is unique. She says she personally has had vivid visual and auditory hallucinations. She says she also hallucinates tastes. Her symptoms started to worsen around her junior year of high school.
“My experience with schizophrenia is like living in a nightmare,” McGough says. “I’m just someone who cannot turn off their nightmares even though I’m awake.”
McGough says her most common hallucination is a clown that strongly resembles Tim Curry in the 1990 adaption of Stephen King’s “It” and a ghoulish woman with matted, long black hair that wears a nightgown and carries a knife and McGough’s childhood teddy bear. She also sees spiders.
McGough’s biological family tried to prevent her from receiving treatment and tried to deny her symptoms, thinking it would hurt her chances of getting employment. She felt more isolated as her symptoms intensified throughout her freshman year of college.
“I just felt alone,” McGough says. “I felt trapped. I felt like no one would understand me or accept me, and even worse, I felt people were going to be scared of me.”
After being treated by medical professionals and seeing results, McGough now strongly advocates for proper and immediate medical attention for those experiencing schizophrenia symptoms.
McGough believes both her college and high school experience would have been different if she had an organization like Students with Schizophrenia. Though she feels like she was meant to be the one to start it.
“I honestly feel like it’s my calling to found Students with Schizophrenia,” McGough says. “I really realized there was this huge void in the support for the people who have schizophrenia.”
McGough has one message for the world and is spreading it through her transparency and dedication to her cause.
“My name is Cecilia McGough,” McGough says. “I have schizophrenia, and I am not a monster.”
An unexpected meeting
Cecilia McGough met one of her inspirations, Chris Ulmer of “Special Books by Special Kids,” while promoting Students with Schizophrenia during Mental Health and Wellness Week at the HUB-Robeson Center at Penn State. Ulmer asks McGough to be interviewed which she doesn’t hesitate to agree to. The video has since gotten over five million views.
Fighting the 'bullies'
John Dziak, a friend of Cecilia McGough, describes what is like to not being able to help McGough when she experiences her symptoms of schizophrenia.
The impact of schizophrenia
There are both financial and human costs for people with schizophrenia and those who care for them.