Our firstborn son suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and for 16 years, my husband and I searched for the right medication, for a cure, any cure in our determination to find the miracle that would quiet the voices he heard in his head. We wanted to share our problem with the school counsellor but our daughters begged us not to do so. They reminded us how very cruel high school students could be with their never-ending jokes about people who were mentally ill. So, after a great deal of deliberation, we decided to respect their feelings but were not happy with the decision.
If teachers are trained to recognise mental illness, so much heartache can be avoided. Children hear about AIDS, drug abuse, smoking and alcohol so why is mental illness left by the wayside?
The stigma associated with mental illness is terrible. Acquaintances crossed the street rather than ask me how my son was doing. I heard whispers like; ‘She’s the one with the mentally ill son,’ or ‘that’s the woman whose son is in a psychiatric hospital. Maybe she’s mentally ill too?’
Stigma is a harsh reality for someone suffering from any mental illness as well as for their families as it prevents them from enjoying happy and productive lives. I repeat what I have written so often:-
Stigma is about disrespect.
Stigma is about the negative use of labels.
Stigma is about discrimination.
Stigma is about social exclusion
My aim is for people to feel comfortable discussing mental health issues. I promised my son that I would work toward getting these people accepted in their communities.
But, in the year 1966, my son, the boy I’d nurtured, supported and loved so much, could no longer bear to hear the voices in his head. He wanted peace of mind. Nobody can live without peace of mind and so, in desperation, he took the onerous decision to give up. He no longer had any hope and every single person needs some hope. My firstborn took his life by suicide, leaving the rest of us to cope with this impossibly heartbreaking situation.
Unfortunately, no politician has ever gained votes for championing the rights of mentally ill people. In the first book I wrote on the subject, I quoted one of Lily Tomlin on the back cover:
When we talk to G-d, it’s called prayer.
But, when G-d talks to us, it’s called s c h i z o p h r e n i a.
I knew nothing about schizophrenia. I had never met not heard of a person who suffered from a mental illness during my childhood, but that was not surprising because my parents whispered about cancer in those days.
When my son became ill, I didn’t know that there were other people with the same problem in their families. It took years to come to terms with it. I must have been in denial. I went into the bargaining stage and even though I am not a religious person, I even found myself bargaining with God. I would be the best mother in the world if you cure my son – that kind of thing. Eventually, I had to reach the coping stage because my anger was destroying me and with the aid of two support groups, I managed to do just that.
Mental illness is a long term illness and some psychiatrists even blamed me for causing it which we now know is not so at all.
We consider ourselves to be civilized people so why are mentally ill people still hidden away? Why are they unable to obtain medical insurance? Why are they still not treated as equals? Why do journalists speak about them in derogatory terms? And why don’t heads of state make mental illness research a priority?