It was in 2011, after Camilo Pineda Obando moved to Pacifica, California, a small city just south of San Francisco, when his perception of reality took a sudden, dark shift. It wasn’t the first time the 21-year-old aspiring music producer had experienced episodes of anxiety and paranoia, but this was different. Walking down the street, he felt like the protagonist in a nightmarish video game populated with mysterious characters, some good, others evil. An agonizing sense of responsibility to identify the bad guys and alert everyone else overwhelmed him.
“The most minute thing would determine it,” he says. “The sunglasses you wore, the car you drove, the way you walked.”
Over the course of three days, Pineda’s delusions and paranoia intensified. He accosted a neighbor he believed to be “bad,” yelling at her and pulling her hair. He was arrested, and spent the next three weeks detained in the psychiatric unit at Santa Clara County Jail. His mind was in chaos, his life derailed.
A terrifying diagnosis followed: paranoid schizophrenia. But despite the stigma and fear associated with the illness, Pineda felt some relief. His life had begun unraveling years before, he says, so the diagnosis helped explain his prior troubles, and it offered a path forward.
In the months that followed, medication brought his delusions and paranoia under control, and therapy helped him begin to piece his life back together. “I wasn’t going to sit around and whine and moan because I have this,” he says. “I had my whole life ahead of me.”
Then, in 2013, an opportunity came along. The University of California-San Francisco was looking to enlist young people with schizophrenia to help design an experimental new treatment device: a smartphone application that would provide patients with on-demand counseling, tools to meet treatment goals, and a social network of young people with the disease. Pineda signed on without hesitation.