Understanding Schizophrenia: Fake Signer at Mandela Memorial Claims Mental Illness

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EPA

From left: U.S. President Barack Obama and Thamsanqa Jantjie during Obama's speech at the Nelson Mandela Memorial at FBN Stadium, Johannesburg, on Dec. 10, 2013.

Could schizophrenia explain Thamsanqa Jantjie’s bizarre behavior?

“I don’t remember any of this at all,” Jantjie told the Associated Press when a reporter showed him video footage of him signing at the Mandela memorial service on Dec. 10.

Jantjie was on stage for more than three hours, ostensibly interpreting speeches made by dignitaries, including President Obama, in sign language for the deaf community. Except that his sign language was incomprehensible to them; during the service, they took to Twitter, describing what they saw as gibberish and accusing him of “flapping his arms about” and being an “embarrassment.” Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, told CNN, “It was almost like he was doing baseball signs.”

Defending himself to the press on Thursday, Jantjie says he suffers from schizophrenia, but stands by his sign language credentials. Although he did not recall the Mandela memorial, he said to CNN, “It has been many years I have been doing this job. My portfolio shows that I have been a champion of what I have been doing.”

Jantjie claimed he was experiencing a psychotic episode during the service; he told the Star, a Johannesburg newspaper, that he “lost concentration, started hearing voices and hallucinating.” The voices drowned out what he was supposed to be interpreting, so he said he did the best he could. He mentioned to other reporters that he saw angels enter the stadium as he was standing on the stage.

Still, realizing that he had a responsibility and that he was surrounded by armed men who were part of the security details of the dignitaries attending, Jantjie told the Star that “I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very, very sorry, it’s the situation I found myself in.”

Is such rational thought – about needing to control and cope with a psychotic episode, possible? Elyn Saks, professor of law, psychology and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at University of Southern California, says yes. Saks, herself a schizophrenic, chronicled her own experiences in managing her illness while a law student and a tenured professor in her memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” “Can people like me function? The answer is yes,” she says. “I have been able to function through episodes without people knowing.”

How successful schizophrenic patients are in accomplishing this depends on the types of symptoms they experience and how well they are treated, with medications, psychotherapy or a combination of both. While each case can vary, there are five hallmark symptoms that mental health experts generally recognize as signs of schizophrenia – delusions, hallucinations, disordered thoughts, disorganized or bizarre behavior, and negative symptoms.

Delusions can include beliefs that people or organizations are conspiring against and targeting the patient, making them the victim of persecution. Hallucinations, such as the ones Jantjie claims to have seen or heard, include hearing voices and seeing nonexistent visions; these can become dangerous if they command the patient to execute certain actions, such as harming others or themselves. Bizarre behavior, such as attempting to wear food as clothing, or other irrational acts, can also be a sign of schizophrenia. And in some patients, severe deficits in motivation, speech or thoughts can also occur – “everything seems to slow down, and go blank in some way,” says Dr. Ann Shinn, instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital.

Some schizophrenics also exhibit thought disorders, in the form of garbled speech or nonsensical speech that may lack syntax or structure. Whether Jantjie manifested this symptom with his nonsensical signing isn’t clear.

In order to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, the most recent manual of psychiatric disorders says at least two of the five symptoms above have to be present, as well as impairment in the patient’s ability to function independently.

To live with their mental illness, most patients need antipsychotic medications, some form of talk therapy, or a combination of both. For Saks, medications and therapy five days a week keeps her psychotic thoughts to a minimum. “In law school, when I was on and off my meds, I would say 30% of my waking thoughts were psychotic – I would have delusional ideas, like I had killed hundreds or thousands, or that a nuclear explosion would go off in my brain,” she says. “Now I would say 2% of them are.”

Jantijie told the AP that he was being treated for his mental illness, and that he was due for a checkup on the day of the memorial.

His actions, regardless of their cause, have upset both the deaf and mental illness communities. Deaf individuals have demanded to know why Jantjie was allowed to continue signing throughout the more than three hour service – most sign language professionals change interpreters every 20 minutes to avoid fatigue — after many pointed out that there were problems with his interpretations. And for the mentally ill, such coverage of his failings only increases the stigma that schizophrenia patients already face as being unable to function as productive members of society.

“In the past, if you were diagnosed with schizophrenia you were told to downgrade your expectations of what you would accomplish in life,” says Shinn. “We are trying to change the way people think about that, and to give people a chance to accomplish their life goals. Not everyone is going to be able to do that, but for the people who can, let’s give them a chance.”

Saks is an example of someone who took that opportunity, but she is concerned that media coverage of the negative consequences of schizophrenia may bias the public against providing more of these chances. “To the extent that people come forward, and talk about their stories and experiences with schizophrenia, it reduces the stigma,” she says. “Seeing people do well does that. [Jantjie] is an example of someone who didn’t do as well, so it can cut the other way, to increase stigma and make things worse. But the fact that this guy didn’t do well doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hire sign language interpreters who have schizophrenia. It just means that we want to make sure they are okay, and getting the care they need.”

13 comments
xxEMOxLIZZARDxx
xxEMOxLIZZARDxx

Alright, I've had a few people ask me about this whole situation (I do know a bit of American Sign Language even though I'm not deaf). My answer is always as follows:

Who are we to judge someone signing in a different language? As much as most Americans like to think, the whole world does not have English as it's primary language. There are countries where English isn't even listed as a primary language. Now, I don't know who has been saying that what this man has been saying is jibberish, but think about it, if he's signing in another language that isn't English, it's going to be different than American or British or even French sign language because all language use different words, different phrases and different symbols for a word.

Is it possible he was making it all up? Possibly. Does he have Schizophrenia? Possibly. I don't see how we (people who speak English) should be saying it's jibberish.

vaughn.oneal
vaughn.oneal

This is another example of a country using the lowest-bidder method for hiring a person or agency to perform a service that is of high importance.  We saw this method fail with the U.S.'s ACA website rollout, and now this.  As for Jantijie, it's a little odd that he claims to not remember anything, but can remember the hallucinations and can remember making a decision to try to hide the hallucinations.  Also, his history of being called to the carpet for poor interpretations begs the question of how he got this job.  Oh yea never mind...lowest bidder.

GNM2
GNM2

These comments are cruel. If he says he has schizophrenia and has been hired on numerous occasions before, those facts can surely be verified. As for your assumption, @KristinBell , that all people with any mental illness exhibit identical symptoms, that is as naive and ridiculous as the claim that there were angels in the stadium during Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

I have Bi-polar II Disorder and that is nowhere near the same thing as Schizophrenia, but I can assure you that not all people with Bi-polar II suffer identical symptoms, so neither can people who suffer from Schizophrenia. We are all individuals, and we all have treatment tailored to meet our individual needs. This, as well as lifestyle, culture and countless other factors, can influence how we respond to episodes as mentally ill people.

I expected cruel, cut less comments from people who have never suffered from mental disorders, but not from a fellow schizophrenic. 


I wish we would all just give this guy a break. I think his translation was inadequate, and we already know and agree on this. To add insult to injury, do we need to all comment on his integrity and assume he is a fraud, a con, a liar etc? Come on, people.

KristinBell
KristinBell

Oh, and I have a great litmus test for him: Put him on antipsychotics and tell him he'll have to take them for the rest of his life and see how fast he recants his story!

KristinBell
KristinBell

The story sounds fishy to me. You don't "forget" huge chunks of time when you are schizophrenic. I have schizophrenia and I have never forgotten events that I *just* participated in. Many people think that people with schizophrenia are not there, but they are there. I think he is possibly inventing schizophrenia as an excuse. Horrible!

BorisIII
BorisIII

Since its a national story.  Why doesn't anyone ask him to do some sign language now that he is feeling better.

BorisIII
BorisIII

The world media is so interested.  Why doesn't anyone since ask him to do some sign language when he says he is feeling better.  I think he is saying that he has schizophrenia to get out of lying that he can do sign language.  His symptoms being very intense then completely quickly going away without meds seems like BS also.

Openminded1
Openminded1

World leaders at this event and South African security , allows a schizophrenic on the stage with world leaders. This guy was and is just aliar who wanted to be in the middle of this event and on tv. Security was a joke, and so was this moron.

MikeLand
MikeLand

And on the other hand, maybe we need to break this man's arms to the point he will NEVER, EVER do something like this again in his life.  Revoke any licenses he carries and them commit him to an insane asylum to live out his miserable pathetic excuse of a life.  This was a joke perpetuated by South Africa on Mandela supporters, a joke against them if you will.  its why he did the entire event instead of just a 1-hour shift like other countries would have done.  It also attests to the fact that this event broke US closed caption law by not providing a captioning service.  Since the open signing was bogus, under US law, the networks are required to provide closed captioning.  Since many of the networks relied on this piece of excrement's bogus crap, it means a lot of the stations that carried the program are actually criminally out of compliance with strict CC laws.  And that's just the US, who knows the CC laws of the rest of the world's countries.

tataafornow
tataafornow

Critique of this article: if we are trying

to eliminate the stigma of schizophrenia as a debilitating mental illness, a small suggestion would be to refrain from using the term "schizophrenic." In my experience, I have found that the use of this term defines a person by their disorder, rather than identifying him or her as a person with a disorder. A more appropriate term would be "a person with schizophrenia." Other than that, I enjoyed the article!

KristinBell
KristinBell

@GNM2 @KristinBell  I realize that not all people experience the same symptoms, but someone saying they have no memory of what happened sounds like he is making up symptoms from what he *thinks* happens to people with schizophrenia. Going into a fugue state is NOT a symptom of schizophrenia! Other reports show that he has quite a history of antisocial behavior and has been in trouble with the law for serious offenses many times. 

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/12/13/south-africa-sign-language-interpreter/4009717/


As a person living with schizophrenia the thought of someone using schizophrenia as a way to get out of trouble and excuse bad work and behavior is completely appalling if they are fabricating the whole thing. I'm just saying, there are more liars in the world than there are people with schizophrenia. If he does have schizophrenia that doesn't excuse his past violent behavior either. If he is genuinely sick, then I hope he gets the treatment he needs. And, really, I'm tired of mental illness being assumed any time someone is violent or incompetent. 

Openminded1
Openminded1

@tataafornow Moron, he is just a liar, he wanted to be on tv and in the middle of this historic event. Schizophrenic my ass.