Penn State astrophysics and astronomy major Cecilia McGough might be young, but she’s already left her mark on the world. She co-discovered a pulsar (a super dense neutron star), all while she was still in high school.
Cecilia also happens to live with schizophrenia, though you probably wouldn’t realize it upon meeting her.
Cecilia hid her schizophrenia from the people closest to her, avoiding talking about the hallucinations she was seeing.
Her hallucinations — including a pale clown with red hair, spiders of various sizes, and a girl who resembled the character from “The Ring” — followed her around her college campus and made it challenging and sometimes impossible to do her homework and take tests.
There were days when she was hallucinating so heavily she could barely see the paper in front of her face. It was a struggle that few around her recognized was happening:
During her freshman year of college, in February 2014, Cecilia’s hallucinations had gotten so severe that she tried to die by suicide — which is not uncommon for people who live with schizophrenia.
About 1 percent of Americans has a form of schizophrenia, and an estimated 20 percent of people with schizophrenia make a suicide attempt.
As Cecilia explains, even in mental health communities, schizophrenia carries an intense social stigma. After one particular night’s stay in the ER during college, Cecilia decided she needed another stay at the psychiatric ward to adjust her medication and get some treatment.
Despite the fact that she was willing to go, police officers were brought to her dorm room, she was patted down in front of her roommates, and she was escorted into a police car outside the dining hall where countless students witnessed the events unfolding. She had to convince the officers not to handcuff her.
But Cecilia knew she wasn’t alone. Even though schizophrenia usually starts during a person’s late teens and early 20s — the same years that most people are in college — she saw there wasn’t a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping college students with schizophrenia.
When Cecilia began experiencing hallucinations, she didn’t know where to turn and she was terrified to seek medical help.
She didn’t want anyone else to feel that way — so she founded the nonprofit Students With Schizophrenia, an organization that empowers students with schizophrenia and their families.
She hopes that Students With Schizophrenia, and her efforts to be honest and open about living with schizophrenia, will make it easier for other young people to get the medical treatment they need and not feel so alone.
She regularly visits Penn State classes to talk about her experiences with schizophrenia, using it as a way to connect with other people who live with the condition.
Her goal is to create a world where no one is ever afraid to say the words, “I have schizophrenia.”
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She’s currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.