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Things I Now Know: Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher is an MQ Fellow and one of the lead researchers on MQ's largest project, Identifying Depression Early in Adolescence (IDEA). Her research focusses on investigating what makes young people at risk of developing psychosis and how we can intervene.

As part of this series, we spoke to Helen about things in life she's learned, her influences and her inspirations...

Being a woman has been one of my biggest obstacles and one of my biggest motivators. A memory that’s stayed with me is being 10, getting the results of a maths test and having the same score as a male friend – but he got moved up a set and I didn’t. Maybe they didn’t want to stretch me further, but I couldn’t understand why it had happened and no one could explain it to me in a way that made sense. Something about that injustice pushed me to work even harder.

I remember the moment I became fascinated with psychosis. During my Psychology degree, I did a placement on a psychiatric ward. I met a young guy, almost the exact same age as me. He was a big guy, very intimidating. Despite that, he was so scared of me that he was physically quivering – he was convinced that I was going to try and hurt him. It didn’t make any logical sense. I was intrigued to know how the brain can get you to that place. How do people get so far detached from reality?

My uncle had chronic schizophrenia and the way he was treated really touched a nerve. He was diagnosed back in the 60s, at a time when people with schizophrenia were heavily medicated and it was assumed had nothing to contribute. He didn’t finish school, stayed at home all day, and had no encouragement or support to do anything. To me, it felt like a life wasted. He had been an amazing artist and who knows what he could have achieved? This has made me really passionate about finding ways to intervene early and support those affected by psychosis to live their lives to the full.

There’s been a real shift in our understanding of how people can live with psychotic disorders. I’ve been in the field 20 years and seen a pivotal change – we know now that people with illnesses like schizophrenia can learn to cope with their symptoms or even recover, have a decent quality of life, and make important contributions to society. There’s much more optimism now about what it means to have a psychotic disorder. 

In our society, we consider hearing voices to be problematic – but not everyone sees it that way. I went to South Africa many years ago and it was so interesting to get a different perspective. In that culture, it’s revered and considered to be a special gift. Here, we often stigmatise people which can make it very distressing. But these experiences are very common in the general population, especially in late childhood. If we took an average class of around 25 12-year-olds, statistically one or two of them would be hearing voices right now. They would have active psychotic symptoms, but they won’t necessarily be distressed or negatively impacted by it.

Art can be an amazing way to raise awareness about what it means to experience mental illness. In the last few years I’ve worked with theatre companies to help produce more authentic performances, co-produced an immersive exhibition, and I’m currently working on a mental health themed tour of the National Gallery. There’s something about the immediate impact art can have on people. Even if one person in the audience begins to think slightly differently about mental health, it’s worthwhile.

As researchers, the work we do is just part of a jigsaw that we hope will eventually have an impact. Ultimately, I want my work to really make a difference in reducing the incidence of people experiencing psychotic disorders in the UK, and ideally across the globe. If we could actually detect the children who are likely to go on and have these problems later and stop them from going down that path, it would be a huge achievement.

Last updated: 29 July 2019

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