There aren't many illnesses left that carry quite the stigma that mental health issues do. True, it is now socially acceptable to go and see a psychiatrist, but even then it’s only acceptable for something safe, like analysis. Once a week you go to the doctor and complain about how awful your life is and he or she sits there and takes notes.
In some circles it has become almost a status symbol or a badge of distinction to say, "Oh yes I'm in therapy." They might not be able to tell you exactly why or if it's done them any good; it's just one more thing to do in a week. To be fair, more and more people are seeking professional help for dealing with the ever-increasing amounts of stress that seems to be a prerequisite of living in today's society.
Depression and anxiety are no longer considered "abnormal," as nearly one in four people are now being medicated for one or the other. Hell, when the big drug companies are taking out television ads and buying up miles of page space in attempts to sell you the latest be-happy-pill, you know whatever it is for is pretty damn mainstream.
It's when you begin to deviate away from the "normal" abnormalities that the looks start. The slightly fixed smile and the freezing of facial muscles are usually accompanied by a shifting of body weight onto the back foot; in case you start frothing at the mouth or acting in any manner that might be construed as dangerous, they can execute a quick getaway.
There's nothing quite like the words bi-polar or schizophrenia to bring a conversation to a complete and stuttering halt. If you want a little personal space in a crowded room, all you have to do is work sentences into conversation, like "My doctor says I'm in a bit of a manic phase right now, but he's hoping the adjustment to my meds will enable me to cope." Grin a little wildly and add a touch of mania to your eyes and you'll find yourself alone in the middle of the room in no time flat.
People with schizophrenia or diagnosed with bi-polar disorder become immediate pariahs to those who were their friends and even some members of their families. If you had any decency at all, you would go off and get yourself put away in a mental home and not be such a burden on your friends and family. They'd all be more than willing to help you commit yourself – for your own good, of course – if you would only come to your senses and do the right thing.
The convenience of you being shut away is, of course, all theirs; out of sight and out of mind is how most people would prefer sick relatives or friends. But that sort of behaviour is almost bearable when compared to the abuse some patients are subjected to. Far too often it is family causing the abuse, aided and abetted by the complicity of a society that doesn't care.
When a person suffers from a mental illness, one of the assumptions society is quick to make is that no matter the severity of the disease, the mentally ill person’s ability to assess circumstances has been reduced. When they are living at home and their primary caregiver is a parent, anything the patient says is judged against the parent's description of the same circumstances.
A parent could be stealing from his or her own child, caught and accused by the child, but nothing will happen. All the so-called caregiver has to do is suggest the child was off his or her meds for a day or two, and everything the client says is immediately suspect and will be passed off as paranoid delusions.
Let the child become angry and try to stand up to their parent and it will be suggested that the patient is becoming dangerous and hard to manage. The doctor might up the patient's medication. Let me give you an example of this sort of thing in action.
My wife and I have a friend who is his early thirties. Five years ago he was headed for a nervous breakdown due to stress and other factors. Instead of his mother trying to get him treated for the obvious stress he was undergoing, she convinced him he needed to commit himself to a psychiatric ward in the local hospital. While he was there, they diagnosed him as schizophrenic.
Since his release from the hospital he has been living with his mother and she has been making his life miserable. He has not a single means at his disposal for resisting. At any time she can arrange a competency hearing that could see him declared incompetent and lose what little say he does have in his life. On a whim she can decide that he's not allowed to have friends or leave the apartment unless it is to run errands for her.
Even though she is reaping enormous benefits from his living with her, she continues to act like she is the ultimate martyr and he owes her for all the sacrifices she's made. The truth is that she owes him for quite a bit, the least of which is a guarantee that half her rent is paid for each month by the government of Ontario through our friend's disability pension.
There is also the slight matter of her only paying 30% of the listed rent of "her" apartment because our friend ensures she is entitled to a two-bedroom geared to income unit, when under normal circumstances she would have to settle for a single room apartment. It is to her advantage that he continues to think of himself as dependent on her and that he's not capable of surviving a day on his own.
Towards that end, she continually insults him, runs him down to others when he is present, and talks about him in the third person when he is in the same room. Whenever he becomes friends with anyone who encourages him to take pride in himself and his accomplishments, she demands that he stop seeing them.
The poor man is so frightened of her and how she can make his life a living hell, he always goes along with what she tells him to do. Like so many other mental health patients, he has no one he thinks he can turn to for help and is trapped in a situation where he doesn't have a chance of getting any better.
He is not alone in these types of circumstances. The particulars might be different in each set of circumstances, but the end result is usually the same. There are advocacy groups for mental health patients, but they have to know the patient exists before they can contact them. Even if someone manages to establish a contact for him to one of those groups, the patient has to want to change his or her circumstances. In some instances, they just feel too frightened to do anything anymore.
When a patient is diagnosed with schizophrenia, there is no monitoring of their situation other then a semi-annual check-up with psychiatric personal to ensure their medication is still working. They are not given access to any ongoing therapy to help them cope with any problems they may be having. They are either left to their own devices or the tender mercies of their caregivers.
The medical profession makes very little effort to help those patients suffering from schizophrenia once they are released back into the community. Perhaps if there were a more concentrated effort on everyone's part (government, advocates, and medical professionals), this could be changed. Until then, people like my friend will be subject to a living hell.