College Student Explores Rare Mental Health Condition in Award-Winning Podcast



Michael Vargas Arango has a rare mental health condition. He was diagnosed as a teenager with schizoaffective disorder, and he would like people to think about that condition without fear.


MICHAEL VARGAS ARANGO: I’m not dangerous. I’m not crazy. And I’m not delusional.

No, you’re not.

VARGAS ARANGO: I’m just one more guy with a mental health condition living with it.

INSKEEP: Michael’s podcast is the college winner of the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. NPR’s Elissa Nadworny went to Miami to hear his story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The idea for the podcast came after he told his girlfriend about his condition, the first person outside of his family he’d told.

VARGAS ARANGO: Of course, I had to tell her, like, this is happening to me. I hear voices. I feel presences. This is who I am. I can’t lie. I cannot lie.

NADWORNY: It was a big deal for him to tell her. Michael is an international student at Miami-Dade, living in a foreign city, speaking a second language far from his family back in Colombia.

VARGAS ARANGO: You’re here by yourself doing things by yourself and trying to make your parents proud.

NADWORNY: His girlfriend, Elizabeth Pella, was understanding, curious and loving. But she had one request. Don’t tell my friends.

ELIZABETH PELLA: I was kind of concerned that then they would judge him, judge me, be confused. Like, why are you dating this guy? I was just scared, yeah. And yeah, I wanted to protect him, too.

NADWORNY: But that – it didn’t sit well with Michael.

VARGAS ARANGO: Why don’t you want your friends to know? You don’t want to know? I’m going to show you how it is.

NADWORNY: Now he didn’t just want to tell his girlfriend and her friends. He wanted to show everyone what it was like living in his head. Here’s what he came up with.


VARGAS ARANGO: Michael. Michael. Why would you tell them I exist? They won’t understand.

NADWORNY: What resulted became a podcast called “The Monsters We Create.”


VARGAS ARANGO: Stop. You’re giving me a headache. Can you shut up for a second?

No, I won’t.

Thank you. This is how I’ve been living my whole life.


But you’re probably wondering, what is this guy talking about? Who’s he even talking to? Well, let me explain.

NADWORNY: Michael explores what it’s like to live with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition where a person experiences symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and mood disorders like depression. It’s rare. Michael is among the 3 in 1,000 people who experience it.

So where are we going?

VARGAS ARANGO: To where the magic happens.

NADWORNY: He recorded most of it in his Miami apartment.

VARGAS ARANGO: My happy place, let’s say.

NADWORNY: And it was there where producer Janet Woojeong Lee and I sat with him on his bed and talked about how he went about translating what happens in his head.

Explain a little bit more, like, what it’s like from your perspective.

VARGAS ARANGO: I hear the voices, but in another language that I just don’t understand. I sometimes hear my name being called multiple times and this and that and that and that and that.

NADWORNY: In the podcast, Michael plays with sound effects and echoes.


VARGAS ARANGO: I’m not delusional.

No, you’re not.

NADWORNY: But it’s not always to illustrate his experience. He often uses that echo to reflect the way people imagine the voices he hears.

VARGAS ARANGO: If you hear the voice responding to what I’m talking like…

NADWORNY: He pulls up a few spots in the podcast to illustrate this.


VARGAS ARANGO: I just had an imaginary friend.

Imaginary friend.

What is this? What is wrong with me?

What do you mean wrong?

That’s never something that I hear. That’s somehow a way to make fun of the prejudice that people have about people with these kind of conditions because they think that you’re hearing (speaking Spanish). You’re hearing these voices to try to go hurt someone, like, inviting you, let’s say, asking you to go hurt someone. That’s not what you hear. That’s not how it works.

NADWORNY: This openness – it’s pretty radical for Michael. His family back in Colombia – they didn’t talk about mental health. And as a kid, his schizoaffective disorder presented as imaginary friends. Here’s how he explains it in the podcast.


VARGAS ARANGO: You can probably imagine what the reaction of my Colombian religious mother was.

OLGA ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS ARANGO: “This kid is possessed.”

NADWORNY: His mother, Olga Arango, brought him to a local priest.

VARGAS ARANGO: She thought I could see ghosts or something. But, hey, don’t get me wrong. It would be a super cool power.

Yeah, it would.

But no, I can’t see ghosts, sadly.

NADWORNY: The diagnosis came when he was a teenager with visits to psychiatrists and psychologists. That was followed by dark times, depression and anxiety. Michael also struggled with his own misperceptions and prejudices around schizoaffective disorder and mental health.

VARGAS ARANGO: I was one of those people that had this kind of perspective of, these people are crazy. These people are dangerous. You are delusional. You’ve got to be, like, away from them. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

NADWORNY: All of this comes through in his podcast, which our judges chose from hundreds of entries from all over the country. Our judges praised his vulnerability in telling his story. Here’s one example from the podcast where he asked random students at his college how they would describe someone with his condition.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Delusional, imbalanced and scared.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So a lot of voices in their heads, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Crazy, psychotic and scary.

VARGAS ARANGO: Then I asked these students, what would they do if they were told that there is a schizophrenic student on campus?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Dangerous to their environment if they do not take their meds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I wouldn’t really care, honestly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I would be really scared, and I would probably call public safety because I would not feel safe.

NADWORNY: What is going through your head as you’re recording them saying this?

VARGAS ARANGO: I knew what kind of responses I was going to get.


VARGAS ARANGO: ‘Cause I once had this point of view because of environment and movies or whatever. You think, like, these people are crazy.

NADWORNY: And so when they’re saying this, are you, like…

VARGAS ARANGO: I was smiling.

NADWORNY: You were smiling.

VARGAS ARANGO: I guess it was, like, a…

NADWORNY: A knowing smile.

VARGAS ARANGO: A knowing smile. Like, I knew it. Like, I knew it (laughter).

NADWORNY: Talking openly about his schizoaffective disorder and his treatment, which includes medicine and therapy, has also helped his family, he says.


VARGAS ARANGO: They’re all in Colombia, so that’s the only way we have to, you know – mother.

ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: After we gave Michael the news, he calls his parents. He tells them winning the Podcast Challenge comes with a $5,000 scholarship.

VARGAS ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: Through tears, his mom tells him she’s crying from joy, from happiness.

ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS ARANGO: She said that she admires me.

ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

NADWORNY: She says watching Michael’s success has changed her perception of mental illness.

ARANGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARGAS ARANGO: She said, “I know that God gave me a really beautiful person, and I – every day, I tell him to not change.”

NADWORNY: Not changing – that’s the biggest lesson he’s learned in telling his story. Trying to let go of being scared – to tell people who he really is.

VARGAS ARANGO: You need to be honest. You need to, I guess, embrace who you are and what you’re living with ’cause, like, everyone is going through things. Everyone is dealing with their own stuff.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Miami.


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