upper waypoint

When Medicine Got it Wrong

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

See a preview of this Truly CA episode.

Narrated by Rita Moreno, When Medicine Got it Wrong is the groundbreaking story of a small group of loving California families in the 1970s who challenged the commonly-held belief that schizophrenogenic parents caused schizophrenia. Angry at being blamed for an illness they knew was not their fault, mothers and fathers in San Mateo, California started Parents of Adult Schizophrenics (PAS) and began fighting for better understanding and treatment.

The story starts in 1974, and centers on two families -- the Oliphants and Hoffmans -- whose sons developed schizophrenia in their teens. Doctors told the boys that their parents were the cause of their problems. Medical records labeled each child as the "identified patient" in a dysfunctional family structure wherein the parents were more psychologically ill than the family member exhibiting delusional and psychotic symptoms. The cure: separation from the parents. The boys were institutionalized at Napa State Hospital, and the parents were warned that visits would be detrimental to their sons' chances of recovery.

When Medicine Got it Wrong shows how these families transcended extreme cultural shame to go public with their stories -- first by forming PAS, and then openly challenging doctors to recognize the medical nature of their children's ailment. The Oliphants and Hoffmans prompted researchers to question their assumptions about schizophrenia's etiology. Their passion inspired parents across the country to organize and lobby for research and more appropriate, compassionate care.

Their passion paid off: by the end of the 1970s neuroscience was investigating causes outside of family dysfunction and interpersonal relationships. Rapid discoveries in the next decades revolutionized medicine's understanding of these brain diseases. By the mid-1980s, textbooks dropped the term "schizophrenogenic," and in the 1990s pharmaceutical companies introduced the first new generation of medication in decades. Finally, these families began to see hope for their children.


The parents featured in When Medicine Got it Wrong waged their battles in an era when mental hospitals were shutting down and the most severely mentally ill were turned over to community care. Yet in the community, virtually no treatment centers would take in severely ill patients because, ironically, these patients' were too sick to participate in therapy. Many became homeless and their untreated symptoms often resulted in bizarre behavior, senseless crimes and ultimately incarceration.

When Medicine Got it Wrong addresses misconceptions about severe mental illness head-on and provides historical context for our contemporary mental health care crisis. Through the perspective of families, audiences share in the continued struggle for better understanding and care for some of California's most vulnerable citizens.

To order a DVD of When Medicine Got it Wrong, please call DocumentaryEducational Resources at (800) 569-6621 or go to der.org.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
The Stud, SF's Oldest Queer Bar, Gears Up for a Grand ReopeningThis Sleek Taiwanese Street Food Lounge Serves Beef Noodle Soup Until 2:30 a.m.You Can Get Free Ice Cream on Tuesday — No CatchMinnie Bell’s New Soul Food Restaurant in the Fillmore Is a Homecoming5 New Mysteries and Thrillers for Your Nightstand This SpringThe World Naked Bike Ride Is Happening on 4/20 in San FranciscoA Lowrider Cruise in Honor of Selena, the Queen of Tejano, in San FranciscoHow Low Key Became the Coolest Skate Shop in San FranciscoBest Bets for the 2024 Healdsburg Jazz FestivalHere’s What Bay Area Rappers Are Eating (According to Their Lyrics)