By Kelli Whitlock

An analytical thinker with an affinity for mathematics, Fred Frese always pictured himself as an international businessman, making large-scale contributions to society. But he was destined to make an impact of a different sort.

Fred Frese, MS '74, PHD '78, posing with statues on the Statehouse lawn during a speaking visit to Columbus, broke his silence about living with schizophrenia in 1985.
Photos: Jack Kustron
Using the professional skills he gained as a psychology student at Ohio University, Frese, MS ’74, PHD ’78, tours the country helping people with mental illness sort through the maze of their disorders. And he knows all too well how difficult a path that can be: As a recovering schizophrenic, he is intimately acquainted with the journey.

“Although many of us are out in the general population now, most members of the greater society tend to know very little about us, in great part because of our own silence about our condition,” he says.

For 20 years after his diagnosis, Frese was silent about his illness. But that changed in 1985, when Frese began to spea k out about his experience with schizophrenia. Since then, he has delivered more than 300 speeches on living with a serious mental illness.

When he lectures, he shares the story of a passage through the darkness of psychosis and beyond breakdowns to recovery. Speaking to standing-room-only crowds, Frese relates his life’s victories. People are amazed to hear that he not only fought his way back from his illness, but that he was, for 15 years, director of a hospital within the very same psychiatric sy stem that once treated him as a patient. He has received several honors for his dedication to others, including the 1997 Courage to Come Back Award from the St. Francis Health System in Pittsburgh.

“I spent 20 years not telling anyone about what I was living, too ashamed to talk about it,” says Frese, now 57 and a resident of Hudson. “I now know that by perpetuating the secret, you perpetuate the shame.”

Frese jokingly calls himself a “stand-up schizophrenic,” a title that fits his harried sch edule of lectures and meetings. He belongs to state and national consumer advocacy organizations, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, for which he serves on the board and as second vice president. He is a member of the American Psychological Association and is a clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University.

Facts about mental illness
  • Severe mental illnesses are biologically based brain diseases that profoundly disrupt a person's ability to think, feel and relate to others or to their enviroment.
  • In any given year, more than 5 million Americans suffer from severe mental illness.
  • The No. 1 reason for hospital admissions nationwide is a psychiatric disorder.
  • Some well-known people who suffered from severe mental illness are Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven, V an Gogh, Winston Churchill and Michelangelo.
Sources: Fred Frese and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. NAMI can be reached by calling 1-800-950-NAMI.
He balances his speaking engagements and community activism with a part-time position as coordinator of the Summit County Recovery Project. There, he helps people with mental illness find a place in the community, a mission that is sometimes complicated by society’s miscon ceptions about mental illness. Despite massive public awareness campaigns by consumer advocate groups, many people remain unclear about the causes of mental illness, its treatments and the people who live with the disease.

Contrary to popular belief, people with schizophrenia do not have split personalities. But this serious mental illness can leave individuals unable to separate reality from fantasy. A person with schizophrenia may experience psychotic episodes during which the mind makes the unreal seem real.

During his first breakdown in 1965, Frese’s reality melted into a world where he became convinced that commanding officers at a Jacksonville, Fla., naval air base had been brainwashed by the Chinese government. Frese, then an officer in the Marine Corps, was in charge of a group assigned to guard atomic weapons stored on the base. The psychotic episode began without warning. Frese was sitting at his desk, going about his day, when he experienced what he believed was an epiphany: His supe rvisor, who had expressed displeasure in Frese’s decision-making abilities, was a Chinese spy. It explained everything, including the officer’s belittling behavior and his lack of confidence in Frese.

Penny Frese, MFA '73, PHD '85, speaks at a workshop on mental health.
Afraid the officer would realize his secret had been discovered, Frese contacted the base psychiatris t, believing that only someone with a background in hypnosis and matters of the mind would be able to help the officer break free of Chinese control.

Frese recalls with unfortunate clarity the sequence of events that followed: He was committed to the base hospital and eventually transferred to a psychiatric facility in Bethesda, Md. Unaware that he was delusional, Frese was convinced the Chinese government had been informed of his discovery and that he would be killed. When he accidentally saw his medical chart, he read the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, which he thought was a clever cover-up by his enemy captors.

For the next five months, he endured isolation and debilitating side effects from medication that did nothing to help him understand that he was psychotic and needed help.

In fact, it wasn’t until after several more hospitalizations that Frese began to grasp what was happening to him. His logical nature prompted him to search for a greater understanding of his illn ess, which eventually led him to enroll in the graduate program in psychology at Ohio University in the early 1970s. Over the next several years, Frese began to learn about emerging evidence that mental illness was tied to a physiological problem. He learned that his schizophrenia literally was a problem in his mind — a chemical disorder in his brain.

“Knowing there is a physiological basis for the behavior is helpful for our family because it removes the guilt and lessens the stigma,” says Penny Fre se, MFA ’73, PHD ’85, who has been married to Fred for 20 years. The couple met while graduate students at Ohio University, and they have raised four children, one by Fred Frese’s first marriage.

When Frese speaks about his life with mental illness, he emphasizes the important role family support plays in the recovery process. On many occasions, Frese will introduce his wife, who will take the microphone when he is finished and share her story of living with and loving someone with mental illness. An d sometimes, as was the case at a recent workshop in Columbus, one of the Freses’ children will speak out as well. The children range in age from 15 to 26, and all have been diagnosed with depression.

At the Columbus meeting, the Freses’ 17-year-old daughter, Claire, spoke. Like her father, Claire has dedicated much of her time to helping her peers develop a better understanding of mental illness. She has worked with her parents to develop a video, “Claire’s Story,” which targets younger generations. The project has received nationwide recognition, including a nom-ination for the 1997 American Medical Association’s International Health Film Award.

Stories on Fred Frese’s activism have appeared in the Detroit Free Press and the Wall Street Journal and on CNN, to name a few.

“I feel, in a way, I have been experiencing a kind of mission. It is not a mission I ever would have chosen for myself. . . . But I feel most fulfilled by the work I do every day,” Fred Frese wrote in the journal Second Opinion in 1994. “I hope this will help you to understand a little better the next time you encounter one of us in your neighborhood, in your family, or, although we pray not, perhaps even in yourself.”

Kelli Whitlock is the science writer for University News Services and Periodicals.

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