Schizophrenia: Hidden torment…

Mental Health: From a Canadian perspective.

Improved Treatments Ease A Cruel Disease

It’s quite horrendous. First of all, you’ve got somebody that you love, a child that you’ve raised And then suddenly, the child becomes a crazy person.

June Beeby speaks with disarming candor – her way of dealing with the horror that befell her family. It began in 1979, when Beeby’s 17-year-old son, Matthew, started to hallucinate. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, the boy stayed at home in Toronto as his condition worsened. In his madness, Matthew believed that God wanted his mother and his sister Susan, to die. Frightened, Beeby tried to have Matthew committed so that he could be treated. But, she discovered that this was virtually impossible without Matthew’s consent – which he would not give. Then on a dark, cold day in February, 1981, Beeby arrived home to discover her son dead in a pool of blood. “He had taken two ordinary dinner knives,” says Beeby, “and plunged them into his eyes until they pierced his brain.”

The horror of Beeby’s tragedy may be hard to fathom, but the affliction behind it is all too common. With different details and different – sometimes happier – outcomes, the madness is present in the lives of the estimated 270,000 Canadians who suffer from schizophrenia and in the lives of their families. For years, the prognosis for most schizophrenics has been hopeless. Many still languish on the margins of society, hidden in mental hospitals and lodged in prisons. They are the withdrawn and unemployable adults still living with aging parents, and they are the ragged, suffering souls who carry on conversations with invisible partners, or rant incoherently in the streets. “I live in a totally different world, a different reality,” says Gus Boudens, a 30-year-old schizophrenic in Montreal who has been hospitalized frequently. “I’ve been through lots of different hells.”

Now, better drugs and new ways of treating schizophrenia are enabling more of the disease’s victims to live in society instead of institutions, and even to hold down jobs. At the same time, pioneering Canadian scientists – whose findings have already paved the way for a greater understanding of schizophrenia – and researchers around the world are hunting for underlying causes of the disease. Improved drugs to combat psychosis – the loss of contact with reality that afflicts schizophrenics – are already coming on the market, and some researchers believe that within the next few decades scientists will find a way to virtually cure the baffling disease (page 76).

On the other hand, budget reductions by debt-ridden governments are creating new problems for schizophrenics and other victims of serious mental illness. As hospitals reduce staff and close down beds, families often are unable to find institutions willing to take in schizophrenics who need medical help. Just as frustrating for many families are provincial laws designed to protect patients’ rights, which make it difficult for families to have schizophrenics committed or treated against their will. “The myth is that if people exhibit bizarre behavior, men in white coats will come and take you away,” says Fay Herrick, a Calgarian whose 28-year-old son suffers from schizophrenia. “There aren’t any people who can do that. If only there were.”

Despite educational efforts by the 5,000-member Schizophrenia Society of Canada and its provincial counterparts, the disease remains poorly understood. Many Canadians cling to the erroneous belief that schizophrenia involves a divided psyche or multiple personalities. And many people assume that schizophrenics are prone to violence. The fact is that schizophrenics sometimes become violent, but most do not – they are far more likely to withdraw from society. And the stigma that clings to schizophrenia adds to the victims’ difficulties. “The stigma is always there,” says Sherri Matsumoto, a 32-year-old Winnipegger who is training to be a mental health worker. “I’m careful who I tell because, with some people, their attitude changes. They think I might come at them with a knife.”

Schizophrenia usually begins between the ages of 16 and 30, with men often being affected earlier than women. The first symptoms can include trouble concentrating or sleeping, and afflicted people may start avoiding their friends. In the next stage, many schizophrenics begin to speak incoherently and see or hear things that no one else does. As the disease takes hold, there are cycles of remission followed by frightening relapses marked by disordered thinking that causes many schizophrenics to leap illogically from one subject to another when they talk. They begin to experience hallucinations, paranoia and delusions – schizophrenics in their psychotic phases may become convinced that people are spying on them, or imagine that they have acquired godlike powers.

When they are in the grip of psychosis, they frequently behave erratically, and they can become violent or suicidal. Often, it is parents and other family members who have to deal with the recurring crises. In September, Mary Lou Schaefer, a retired Peterborough, Ont., day care supervisor, went searching for her 30-year-old son after he fled into the streets. Her son was convinced, says Schaefer, that “someone was walking up and down in front of his apartment with a gun. When he gets like that, he thinks he has to defend himself. So he can be a danger to other people.

Schizophrenia (Wayne Shorter album)
Schizophrenia (Wayne Shorter album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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