Jennifer PagliaroThe Toronto Star
Date Published: Saturday, September 15, 2012
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For five years after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Neil Marshall believed he’d never get off the couch. But in the past month, Marshall did something he once thought impossible: He presented and argued his master’s thesis in mathematics at Brock University.
More than a decade ago, after suffering from hallucinations and disorganized thinking, Marshall was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 21. He was forced to drop out of a computer science degree at the University of Waterloo.
“The symptoms happened and my grades fell and my social life collapsed,” he said. “So one of the smartest things I ever did is I went home.”
Marshall, now 33, was then diagnosed with the mental illness and prescribed antipsychotic medication to help fight visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions.
The medication he took made him extremely lethargic, he said. Sometimes he slept for upwards of 14 hours a day.
“I had thought for maybe ... five years that the best case scenario for me would (be that) I would be on a couch the rest of my life,” he said. “For a long time I sort of accepted that.”
In Canada, some 6.7 million people — or 20 per cent of the population — live with a form of mental illness. Of the total population, at least 1 per cent develop schizophrenia, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Most people have their first episode in their late teens or 20s.
While there are treatments available, most commonly antipsychotic medications, some people are less responsive than others.
When Marshall was encouraged to go back to school the first time in 2000 by his psychiatrist, and enrolled at Brock University, things quickly unravelled.
“This was a very dark time in my life,” he said. “I was very non-functional. I wasn’t living much. I consider myself existing at the time.”
In 2005, Marshall’s brother asked him to be the best man at his wedding.
“He had been so wonderfully supportive throughout this whole thing,” Marshall said. “I wanted to give him one day where I could be to him what he had always been for me.”
Having gained a significant amount of weight as a side effect of the medication, Marshall convinced himself to get off the couch, going for walks and then runs in the year he had to prepare before the big day where he was expected to give a toast.
“It was my first time speaking publicly and well, suffice to say, it went really well,” he said. “That was sort of my first real success at putting my mind to something and achieving it.”
So the following spring, he decided to do something for himself and re-enrolled at Brock as an undergraduate.
With his poor grades and large gap between schooling, he was given two options: math or history. Marshall picked math and planned to stick it out for a year.
This time he had coping strategies in place — learning to anticipate when symptoms were getting worse, doing work well in advance of the deadline, taking breaks when he needed to and building a large support system among faculty and friends.
When the first-year calculus midterm rolled round, two thirds of the class failed.
Marshall aced the test — earning 100 per cent.
“That’s really the starting point of how I started reassessing my identity,” he said. “No longer was I this weak, this broken individual. I was the top student in the class.”
Marshall went on to complete an honours thesis and begin his master’s research focusing on mathematics education that uses interactive tools to teach complex concepts.
His presentation last week represented two years of intensive work after a long journey to even make it in the door.
“My supervisor is very proud of me and I’m very happy with it,” he said.
Proud is almost an understatement.
“I have to admit I was pretty emotional ... Like his parents, I was very proud,” said supervisor Chantal Buteau, associate professor in Brock’s mathematics department. “There is Neil that went through an enormous, challenging situation ... And then on the other side too. There is the great quality of his work in mathematics.”
For Marshall, it’s about loving what he does, being honest with his supporters when he is running into health problems and proactively working to reduce negative symptoms.
Buteau still remembers how the eager student stood out from her first-year class.
“Already in the beginning he had regular questions. He showed curiosity and good understanding as well of the content,” she said.
She would first learn of his unique challenges after she asked him to be a research assistant his first summer.
They two have worked together since, including co-presenting at international conferences, where Buteau said the student excelled.
Bureau said Marshall has also been one of her best TAs, with a passion for teaching others that may have been sparked by his retired math teacher father.
For Marshall, there is a pride in what he has been able to accomplish. His work, including his honours thesis have been published in major international journals, and he’s been awarded a prestigious scholarship for his upcoming PhD studies at York University.
But there’s also a lesson.
While it’s true those with severe, chronic mental illness face a 70 to 90 per cent unemployment rate, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, and achieving a university degree is a major barrier, Marshall said telling his story is not about encouraging others to follow exactly in his path.
For Marshall, it’s about recalculating what you believe you are capable of.
“There’s a lot of very beautiful moments that came out of my life after I put my mind to changing my story,” he said. “I always lament that I’m a square peg in a round hole. But sometimes you’ve just got to hammer that peg in as hard as you can.”
When Marshall thinks about what he’s accomplished just in the past two years he can only think of one word to describe it: “Intoxicating.”
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