Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia

Part of the reason I wanted to start writing this blog again is because the first assignment for one of my classes this semester was to watch Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, a 2010 documentary about Dr. Delaney Ruston’s struggle to connect with her estranged father who has lived most of his life with schizophrenia.

Plus, my one assignment for this class so far is to write a reflection on the movie, so I figured this would be a good rough draft!

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Briefly, this movie covers the journey that Dr. Ruston undergoes to reconnect with her father, Richard. Accompanied by illustrations of the novel he wrote in his youth (and at the beginning stages of his disorder), the portrayal of Richard Ruston was incredibly moving, without being overly simplistic or dismissive of his humanity.

I was very grateful for the film’s focus on the mental health advance directive, something I wasn’t aware of until this past summer when my class on social work and the law (and something everyone should read up on because it’s extremely important!). Just like a living will or medical advance directives, a mental health advance directive allows a person to decide, when they are healthy, what sort of care they want to receive when they are in a crisis. This includes things like hospital preference, medication preference, warning signs of a crisis, and emergency contacts. Dr. Ruston’s struggle to have her father fill out his own advance directive was hard to watch, but I imagine it is not uncommon when a family member is unwilling or has lost faith in the mental health system, as Richard makes clear.

Unfortunately, just like other advance directives, a mental health advance directive is only helpful if treating physicians have a copy of it at the time of treatment, which is not always the case. I have lots of other feelings about advance directives, but I will save them for another time.

I did disagree with the film’s assertion that it is too difficult to have a person committed to a psychiatric hospital if they are not threatening to harm themselves or another person. Though laws vary between states, most include a provision that covers the concept of “grave disability.” This means that, if the person is so disabled by the severity of their symptoms (including hallucinations or delusions) that they are no longer able to care for themselves and could predictably end up in danger if these symptoms are not treated, they can be committed. However, I am only closely familiar with North Carolina’s laws and cannot speak with great certainty on the laws in other states, nor how local entities carry out those laws. I sympathize deeply with Dr. Ruston’s difficulty in getting her father the care he needed as I have had a similar struggle with my own father (TMI?).

For me, the most important part of this film was seeing all the facets of life of a person diagnosed with schizophrenia. After I graduate, I plan to work with people who have severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI), which includes psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. This film does a great job of portraying all aspects of Richard’s life, and how helpful his social supports were when he was at his lowest points.

The most poignant scene for me was when Dr. Ruston and her father visit a former classmate of his, who happens to be a child psychologist. During their meeting, he does some great motivational interviewing and summarizes very succinctly the plight of Dr. Ruston and her father:

Each time that you saw your dad, there would be this, “Oh, maybe it’ll be different.” And then you’d be incredibly disappointed when it would be kind of the same…. But, similarly, your dad would hope that it would be different. And not having the tools, and not understanding what was going on within him, he was unable to do anything different.

Without giving away the ending, I was very moved by the final scene of the movie. I am incredibly grateful that Dr. Ruston shared the story of her father with the world, and I hope that more people are able to watch not only this documentary, but other first-hand accounts of what it’s like to live with schizophrenia.

Before you stop reading! I also want to point out that this film partially takes place in Seattle, where I visited a dear friend of mine this summer (hi Taryn!). During the week I was there, I was shocked by the amount of homelessness I witnessed — and found out later that Seattle is indeed in the middle of a homelessness crisis. Unlisted pointed out the lack of supports for those with mental illness, which unfortunately includes the lack of housing supports. If you have a minute, I recommend checking out the Seattle Times’s coverage of the homelessness crisis, as they highlight some of the innovative solutions the city is considering.

Unlisted can be purchased through their website.

Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia (2010): ★★★★½