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December 20, 2004
Editorial - Father with Schizophrenia
This is a good example of the types of editorials that people can write to Newspapers about their experiences with schizophrenia. The more that people write, the more that people will understand the disease.
December 18, 2004 Saturday
Shining light on a dreaded disease: A Sun columnist receives a wave of emotion-filled responses to the story of his father and finds that a small army of Canadians is diligently working to shine light on the confusion and fear surrounding people with schizophrenia
By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun
All I wanted to do was lie low when I saw the photo of my father, Harold Todd, on the front page of The Vancouver Sun on Saturday, Dec. 4.
My story about my father's struggle with schizophrenia had been, in one sense, my way of coming out of the closet -- to more than half a million people. The feeling of vulnerability was almost overwhelming.
No longer would friendly strangers ask if my father happened to be a retired University of British Columbia professor with the last name of Todd. That pleasant little illusion was over. Now people would learn, at least in the usual sense, my dad hadn't accomplished much at all.
When I emerged from my house on Sunday and went to one of my coffee haunts, Cuppa Joe's on West 4th, the woman behind the counter, Indy, told me I'd been "brave" to write the story about a life of Sunday visits with a father with schizophrenia.
"Brave? Or stupid?" I asked.
"Bravery often includes a bit of stupidity," Indy replied.
I've since been flooded with the heartfelt response of colleagues, friends, family and readers. I've heard from police chiefs, psychiatrists, theologians, health officials, researchers, my editor-in-chief and my publisher. Most important of all I've been contacted by scores of people with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, as well as their often-anguished loved ones.
We are legion.
Health Canada researchers estimate nearly one in five Canadians will suffer mental illness. And fully 80 per cent of Canadians have a direct link to a family member or friend with mental illness, of which schizophrenia is the most common, not to mention one of the strangest and most frightening. Schizophrenia strikes more than 300,000 Canadians. Yet most of us, me included, still find ways to run away from people with the illness.
Where to start with the stories, mostly harrowing but sometimes heartwarming, that people have honoured me with in the past two weeks?
How about in The Sun's newsroom, where one colleague told me about his wife's struggle with the paranoia of schizophrenia, and another told about the pain of having her long-term boyfriend, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, committing suicide?
The many grateful letters included one from a small-town B.C. mother who valiantly took on London Drugs when a store denied service to someone with a mental illness. Another mother phoned and broke down crying as she wished more people would read such articles so they'd understand her child's disease and counter its stigma.
There were also unexpected letters of admiration for my dad. A classy one came from Paul Glassen of Duncan Mental Health Centre, who said he works for people with schizophrenia and regards my father as "one of the great unsung everyday heroes."
"[Your father] obviously lived quietly and courageously through a dark time in the history of society's treatment of those with this illness. His life exemplified the abiding dignity of those I so admire living under conditions few of us could endure."
People with schizophrenia offered their thanks. And one reader asked if she could create a beadwork version of my father's painting, called Houses, which was printed in The Sun. Douglas College English instructor Susan McCaslin gave me her book of poems, Flying Wounded, about growing up with a mother who had schizophrenic episodes.
There were also words of encouragement from Vancouver educator Susan Inman, who recently had an autobiographical article published titled, So Where's the Gift? "Those who seek the hidden gifts in misfortune would have to look hard if they had a child with schizophrenia."
I heard as well from Marja Bergen of the Mennonite Central Committee in Abbotsford, who said she'd been in Crease Clinic for 10 months in the 1960s, but has "come out" in public and is doing well in part because of advances in modern medicine.
Bergen passed on a book titled No Longer Alone: Mental Health and the Church, by Canadians John Toews and Eleanor Loewen. From a conservative Protestant perspective, the book explores dangerous age-old beliefs that saw mental illness as punishment for sins. Fittingly, the book also devotes a chapter to Jesus' agonized question on the cross: "My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?"
The correspondence wasn't all supportive, however. A retired psychiatric nurse at what is now called Riverview questioned my childhood memories of the wing known as Crease Clinic, saying it didn't have bars on the windows in the 1950s, nor did it have smoke-filled rooms.
It wasn't my intention to criticize the staff who did what they could to feed, house and help my dad at Riverview more than four decades ago, when psychiatrists had little idea how to treat schizophrenia, beyond electro-shock and lithium treatments.
However, I had more than a few letters from readers who verified my dark recollections. They said they visited parents and children in locked, barred wards in Crease Clinic in the 1950s, with some saying their relatives' experience there was more "abusive" than I had depicted it.
Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham also weighed in on a crucial issue. He's been pressing for years to improve the way police interact with people with mental illness -- which is frequently and often disastrously.
My mother remembers with undying sorrow how my dad, whom she always called a "nice man," ran away from police after she called them for help because of his bizarre behavior. Harold ended up institutionalized at Riverview and government boarding homes for the rest of his life.
Separately from Graham, someone sent a chilling 2004 report from the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, in which commission chair Shirley Heafey wrote that 15 per cent of all police contacts are with someone with mental illness.
With mental health institutions being downsized, Heafey noted Amnesty International is among those worried more people with psychiatric problems are being released onto the streets, often ending up in confrontations with police.
In B.C., people with schizophrenia have been the victims in more than 30 per cent of all fatal police shootings. In her investigation of an accusation police used excessive force in a showdown with an unnamed B.C. man suffering schizophrenic hallucinations, Heafey scathingly noted the RCMP hadn't bothered to set up a training program to help officers defuse situations with mentally ill people.
However, Vancouver's police chief has been working to reduce discrimination against people with mental illness. Not long ago, Graham says wryly, he was the sole member of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs' mental health committee. Now there are two on the committee.
Graham helped create a small yellow plastic "tips card" police can haul out when confronted by a mentally disturbed person. The card gives advice on how to handle situations involving an unpredictable person in a mental crisis.
The city of Vancouver also has a special patrol vehicle known as "Car 87," in which police and psychiatric nurses together attend emergency calls. The Car 87 teams, Graham says, tell "incredible stories of lives saved and careers turned around" because officers handled troubled mentally ill people with empathy.
The wave of emotion-filled responses to the story of my dad has made clear to me a small army of Canadians is diligently working to shine light on the confusion and fear surrounding people with schizophrenia.
More and more people are willing to put their names and faces to the dreaded disease. And they give the impression they are not going to go away.
Posted by szadmin at December 20, 2004 07:45 PM
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