A STUDENT with schizophrenia has set up an organisation to help other pupils with the condition - despite struggling with near-constant horror film-style hallucinations

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Videographer / director: Adam Gray
Producer: Tom Midlane, Ruby Coote
Editor: Thom Johnson

Cecilia McGough, 23, studies health policy administration at Pennsylvania State University, and is the founder of Students With Schizophrenia.

The organisation is aiming to educate and spread awareness about schizophrenia on college campuses globally, as well as offering financial aid, academic and career services along with both mental health and legal support.

McGough herself experiences a wide variety of hallucinations on a daily basis, including one based on the scary clown from the original movie version of Stephen King’s horror classic ‘It’.

Cecilia, originally from Woodstock, Virginia, said: “My hallucinations first started out as shadowy figures that my parents would call Mr Blobman.

“But as I got older I started hearing sort of static-y whispers in my ears, like when you have a radio dialled between two stations."

In her junior year of high school Cecilia’s hallucinations escalated and she began to have visual and auditory hallucinations of giant spiders and the scary clown, whose image she still sees on a daily basis.

“My immediate response was 'I am possessed' or 'I am seeing ghosts’ but it was much easier to deal with once I realised I had schizophrenia,” she said.

Cecilia says she read up about the condition after first hearing about the term ‘schizophrenia’ on the TV show Criminal Minds.

But it was not until she started attending college that she started experiencing “tactile” hallucinations, including a young girl following her around and stabbing her, reminiscent of the figure from the Japanese thriller The Ring.

She said: “I refer my hallucinations to these horror movies as it's the easiest way I can describe my experiences, because I don’t see anything like them in real life, only in the horror genre.

“I actually hallucinated the sharp pains either in my chest or my stomach or my thighs or my face, long before I actually visualised the girl.

"She is worse than the clown because the clown because the clown more just taunts and giggles and says short phrases, but the girl carries on a continuing conversation and can really chip away at my insecurities.

"And since she carries a knife around with her, my brain registers the stabbing as an actual feeling. It’s very painful and distracting.”

While schizophrenia is often portrayed as a niche condition, it actually affects 1.1% of the world’s population over the age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

That means there are an estimated 2.4 million adults in the US with schizophrenia, with studies suggesting that at least 50% will attempt suicide at some point in their life.

Despite her hallucinations, Cecilia thrived academically, even discovering her own pulsar - a type of rapidly rotating neutron star - while still in high school.

But while she dealt with stress of keeping her condition secret, the stigma surrounding schizophrenia discouraged even her parents from seeking treatment for her.

Cecilia said: “My mom thought that people would think that I am dangerous or be afraid of me, think that I was crazy and think I wouldn’t be able to get a job."

And living with schizophrenia has also had a big impact on her love life, Cecilia acknowledges.

She said: “I remember telling my high school boyfriend about the clown that I was hallucinating - he was the first person I’d told outside my family, and he actually laughed about it.

“I don’t really blame him. Neither of us knew what schizophrenia was and we were both young and since then he has apologised to me about it."

But Cecilia has the full support of her current boyfriend Siddharth Sharma, 21, who is fully behind Cecilia’s attempts to change perceptions of the condition.

He said: "Cecilia told me about her condition I would say the first time we met, honestly. She was very open about it, so that definitely helped.

"I am really proud of her for raising awareness about schizophrenia.”

Cecilia acknowledges that her condition has led to several psych ward stays, the second one of which she was forced to go to hospital in a police car, despite being willing to go voluntarily.

That experience started her journey towards mental health activism, and despite beginning life at Penn State as a astronomy and astrophysics honours student, she recently transferred to health policy administration in order to dedicate her focus to Students With Schizophrenia full-time.

The 23-year-old is now well-medicated and relishing the challenge of rolling out Students With Schizophrenia globally.

One of the main things Cecilia wants to tackle is the pop culture perception of people with schizophrenia as violent loose cannons or axe murderers.

She said: “I think the largest misconception of people with schizophrenia is that we are dangerous. The truth is you are more likely to be an abuse victim rather than abuser if you have schizophrenia.

"If there is, say, a violent act, the media often bring up that person has schizophrenia. In the movies we are the plot twists at the end of the movie.

“The reality is we blend right in. We are normal people. I hate the word normal, but you really cannot tell if someone has schizophrenia or not. We are not monsters.

"It’s very difficult for me to really imagine life without having schizophrenia because schizophrenia has become, I don’t want to say it’s my identity because I am much more than my diagnosis, but it has definitely changed how I lived my life.

"But really not living in fear of that secret was very liberating. I realized that yes, I hallucinate and the voices in my head can be very troubling but really it was the negative voices of real people outside that I feared the most.”

For more information on Students With Schizophrenia, visit: https://www.facebook.com/iamnotamonsterschizophrenia/