Schizophrenia is in the news these days, especially with people’s concern about the Greyhound bus killer Vince Li’s partial return to the community after several years of treatment for his illness.
Helping people overcome their fears through a better understanding of the disease was a large part of the goal behind a public forum held on May 20, 2015 at the Centre Culturelle Franco-Manitobain in Winnipeg.
For many people, schizophrenia is a mysterious sickness, largely misunderstood and easily confused with Multiple Personality Disorder and other illnesses. However, schizophrenia has its own characteristics and challenges, different from many other mental illnesses.
Although schizophrenia can take different forms and have various levels of severity, its most basic element is that sufferers hear voices in their heads and often believe these voices are real and that they have to obey what they hear. Sometimes this can lead to murderous attacks on others, but more often, it leads to self-harm and sometimes suicide.
Members of the panel gave first-hand stories of living or dealing with schizophrenia, both from the perspective of patients living with the disorder and from the viewpoint of doctors, family members, or community workers dealing with the sufferers. Managing schizophrenia is a lifelong process, the panelists emphasized, since there is no real cure for the disease.
Even medication is only a partial reprieve from the illness, especially since the side effects are often so severe that going off the drugs often seems like a better option than enduring the constant struggles that the “cures” often bring.
However, as several panelists noted, medication is only part of a treatment plan that should involve counselling, community support, and family involvement.
Ensuring that these kinds of supports are in place is essential, the panelists noted, especially in view of what has happened in the past few decades. During this time, the government has closed many of the institutions that formerly housed the mentally ill, believing that to have patients locked away was an inferior option to letting them live in the community with the proper supports to help them live normal lives.
The theory of integrating the mentally ill into the community was good, the panelists agreed, but unfortunately the government failed to maintain the necessary supports for keeping everything working as it should.
The result has been a marked decline in the number and quality of services available to sufferers and their families, even with increased private or community initiatives that attempt to fill in the gaps.
For some people with schizophrenia, the unavailability or unreliability of services has made an already difficult situation even worse than it was before. Unlike most other ailments, mental illness carries a social stigma with it, making it difficult for sufferers to seek treatment or to obtain a diagnosis.
Added to the problem is the lack of attention to an illness that affects about one percent of Manitobans.
The media can also sometimes exacerbate the problem when it reports on mental health-related topics without noting that many people can be treated quite successfully and live relatively normal lives.
Several audience members were very interested in the topic of schizophrenia, as their questions revealed. If even a few of them take their new knowledge to the places where they live and work, they might help to increase the general public’s understanding of this mysterious illness.