On April 24, 2010, Zia Larson—a bright 21-year-old college student known for his wide grin and joyful demeanor—took his own life at Magnuson park in Seattle.
Larson’s mother, Verneta Seaton, knew her son was struggling with a recent schizophrenia diagnosis. But she wouldn’t find out until years later that the disorder ran in her family.
“No one in my family talked about it,” she says during an interview this past August. She heard relatives mention, in hushed tones, how her uncle “wasn’t quite right,” but never knew to make that connection to her son. One of Seaton’s cousins also has schizophrenia.
The disorder is known to have a genetic component, with research showing that gene mutations can determine inheritance. Additionally, a recent study identified a gene that could contribute by interfering with neuron connections. However, biology does not act alone: A variety of environmental factors, such as childhood trauma, teenage marijuana use and even season of birth, are linked with schizophrenia development in people who have a biological predisposition for the disorder.
Halfway through the interview, Seaton retrieves a photo album from her bag and places it on the table. All the photographs are of Larson: swimming in a pool, at a birthday party, graduating from middle school. They chronicle his transformation into a young man, but his grin—wide, infectious—is the same in every image.
Except the last few. Seaton turns the pages and points out an older Larson, wearing glasses. These are the last photos she has of him.
“At the end there, you can see where he’s sick, his body language,” she says. The grin is indeed different, less natural, the look of someone uncomfortable in his own skin—posture “rigid,” as Seaton describes it.