A unique oral-history project reclaims lost stories of mental illness
It takes a familyBy Sara Samson | Sep 8, 2012
Tags: mental illness
When mental illness strikes a loved one, where do you turn for help?
My mother sighs as she recalls a conversation with her father-in-law years ago. “Your grandpa told me when your father was 18, ‘something was a little off about him’,” she says, “but he never paid much attention to it.” That “something” would come and go over the years, until almost four decades later when it turned our world upside down.
I lived in the suburbs with both my parents and brother. We went on March break trips every year, travelled overseas together; my dad coached my Little League baseball team and even volunteered with my Girl Guide group. Life was good, comfortable. I can’t pinpoint the day or even the year things changed, but somewhere along the way life got messy.
When I was 17 years-old, the terrible truth came out. My father is a drug addict, likely suffering from a mental illness. Now, eight years later, we are still trying to make sense of how this happened and how we got to this point.
Twenty per cent of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetimes, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Eight per cent of adults will experience major depression, five per cent will experience anxiety and one per cent of the population suffers from schizophrenia. Almost half of those who feel they’ve suffered from anxiety or depression have never gone to see a doctor about this problem.
That statistic alarms Stephen Ayer, director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia. “The critical thing is to get professional help because it’s a medical illness,” he says.
The Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia offers support to the families of those with mental illness. With the program manager Hilary Thorne, Ayer works to educate people. They both believe education is key to treatment. “By the family getting that support and education, it’s improving the outcomes for the person with the illness,” says Thorne. “If the family member doesn’t understand what’s going on, they aren’t going to necessarily take the right approach to helping their loved one recover.”
The Society runs a 10-week program called “Strengthening Families,” designed to help families cope with mental illness, plus understand causes and treatment options. “We have to bring mental illness out of the shadows, into the light,” says Ayer. “It’s important that people know and are educated to the signs and symptoms of psychosis so that when somebody does start exhibiting those signs and symptoms, [you can steer them] toward getting the medical help that they need.”
One place to turn is the Nova Scotia Early Psychosis Program in Halifax. Dr. Philip Tibbo is the director of the program working to diagnosis and treat psychosis and mental illness. For him, public education decreases the stigma associated with mental illness. “When you talk to the patients … one of the barriers they feel are the families,” he says. “They may recognize something’s wrong, they go to the family and the family dissuades them from actually getting care.”
Mental illnesses are complicated diseases that many people still know little about. “A major misconception about schizophrenia is that it’s a life sentence and people don’t recover,” says Thorne. “When people hear schizophrenia they think of someone who is in total disarray and never gets better.” She adds that this is not the case.
Ayer says another misconception is that everyone suffering from mental illness is violent. Early this year Andre Denny was charged with killing gay-rights activist Raymond Taavel. Denny suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and was on a pass from East Coast Forensic Unit in Burnside at the time the crime was committed. However, the Canadian Mental Health Association says there is minimal research linking mental illness and violence. Association officials say violence by those with a mental illness is typically featured as headline news, but positive articles about recovery rarely garner much attention. “It’s just unfortunate where we get tragic events that lead to people talking about [mental illness] more,” says Tibbo.
The Association estimates suicide accounts for 24 per cent of all deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds. While it’s not known exactly what causes mental illness, most believe it’s a complex combination of genetics, biological and environmental factors. However, the experts agree treatment needs to come early to increase the likelihood of recovery.
During my high-school years things were rocky with my dad. He was unpredictable and erratic. He started coming home late and spending weekends “at work.” We all noticed something was up, but it happened so slowly that it just became normal to us. No one questioned, at least not out loud, what was going on.
When I left for university in 2005, his behaviour worsened. Disappearing for days at a time, he would come back saying he was really busy at work. He also lost a lot of weight. He started having, what I now can see, were obvious breaks from reality. He didn’t want to pay bills or file taxes, began hoarding anything and everything in our basement and, at his worst, was convinced my brother was trying to kill him.
My mother started discussing my dad’s behaviour with her father-in-law. My grandfather finally admitted my dad’s behaviour stemmed from an early age. This is when I started hearing the word “schizophrenia” being used. I was also old enough to recognize that my dad’s mother, who died when I was young, was an alcoholic and there had been whispers she may have suffered from a mental illness.
My mom took my dad to the family doctor, where blood tests showed he was abusing drugs. The doctor suggested he seek further treatment to diagnosis a possible mental illness. It was apparent the drug abuse was worsening his condition. The Mental Health Association of Canada says certain drugs can cause psychosis in people with a genetic predisposition to mental illness. But my dad refused help.
While my dad has never formally been diagnosed with a mental illness aside from a family doctor, I have. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. Fortunately, it was recognized early and I began counselling and learned how to deal with it. In many ways, I was lucky.
Early this year, the Mental Health and Addictions Strategy Advisory Committee released a report recommending changes to the mental health and addictions systems in Nova Scotia and Canada. The committee estimates 70 per cent of mental illnesses begin in childhood or adolescence. It found early intervention is a key part of treatment for mental illness, saying long wait times for children and youth were of particular concern.
In response to this report the government released Nova Scotia’s first ever mental health strategy. The strategy outlines a five-year plan that will see $5.2 million allocated for initiatives in the first year. The report focuses on indentifying and treating mental health issues early.
Dr. Tibbo stresses the importance of early intervention. “We can do the most within those first four to five years of illness, with the most meaning that we can optimize function and decrease disability if we’re there within the first year,” he says. “A long DUP [duration of untreated psychosis] also means worst outcomes.”
Research is showing the earlier the intervention the better the outcome, says Ayer. “When we talk about recovery that doesn’t mean they are symptom-free or can stop taking their medications. It means that they are at a point in their life that they can function to where they’re satisfied with their life,” he says. “People with treatment go on to very productive lives.”
I have wondered so many times if my dad’s parents or my family had really understood what mental illness is, if his life would have been different. This is not to blame anyone, but to highlight the importance of early intervention. By the time my dad’s illness took over his life it seemed too late for him. We couldn’t force him into a rehab centre or make him seek treatment. We had to sit by, feeling helpless.
Mental illness and drug addiction doesn’t happen to “those people.” It happens to people like my dad, a man who raised me to be kind, forgiving and inquisitive. I haven’t seen him since his own dad died of a massive heart attack in 2007. I’m not sure where he lives or what he does daily. His life has been tragic in so many ways, but it also taught me the greatest lesson of my life; aside from the importance of early intervention, I learned mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and it doesn’t define you.
Symptoms of psychosis
Psychosis is one of the main symptoms of schizophrenia and sometimes other mental illnesses. The Nova Scotia Early Psychosis Program offers information on how to spot a possible psychosis.
- Withdraws from usual activities with friends and family
- Becomes unreasonably suspicious, tense or irritable
- Has difficulty sleeping, is restless and pacing at night
- Hears, sees or perceives things that are not actually there
- Seems confused and their thoughts and speech are unclear and disorganized
- Shows bizarre or unusual behaviour
- Has extreme changes in mood or shows very little emotion or facial expression