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When Mental Illness Is A Résumé Booster

Schizophrenia helped Lisa Halpern land her current job.

Sure, she graduated with honors from Duke University and Harvard’s Kennedy School. She’s an athlete — her first triathlon victory was at age 10 — who is clearly smart, articulate and driven. (Telegenic too — in high school, she appeared as an extra in Beverly Hills, 90210.) But it wasn’t Lisa’s academic pedigree or winning personality that won her a top post as Director of Recovery Services at Vinfen, a Cambridge, Mass. nonprofit that offers psychiatric and other support services to about 7,000 adults and children.

What makes Lisa uniquely qualified to help others deal with the ravages of mental illness is this: Her deep shame, at age 26, over forgetting how to work a coin-operated washing machine; her paranoid self-exile in a dark basement apartment three blocks from Harvard; her sudden thoughts of suicide at life’s little annoyances, from a flat tire to a mediocre test score; her descent into an isolated, pre-literate cocoon, where she was forced to begin again as a child, with “Babar” read aloud by her mother.

That was years ago, after two hospitalizations, medications that made her drool and gain weight, and voices telling her to cross the highway median while driving. These days, Lisa’s on the national lecture and teaching circuit. She speaks at film festivals, major medical conferences and has led Grand Rounds at the hospital where she was once a patient on the psych ward.


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