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Some illnesses are more equal than others

Anyone with a pulse knows about breast cancer, but what is known about schizophrenia, asks Marilyn Baker

January 14, 2007
Marilyn Baker

In February 2004 I got a desperate call from my daughter. She was in a Toronto hospital being treated for breast cancer. I had spoken several times to her doctors and nurses and I believed that she was receiving the best possible care for her illness.

The call came at about 3 p.m. my time in Vancouver, so, 6 at night there. She was distressed because the hospital was discharging her, right then. She had no place to go and no money. She said that her bank card had stopped working and she didn't know why. It was dark and very cold outside.

Alarmed, I asked to speak to the charge nurse. I was told my child's treatment was finished and she had to leave immediately. When I protested that it was freezing outside, that without assistance or a place to go, she could die, the nurse gave me the name of a hotel down the street. I couldn't believe that this was happening. But it was.

I told my child to go to the hotel. After a frantic time on the phone I convinced the hotel to accept my VISA and let her spend the night there. So she didn't die that night, cold and alone on the frozen streets of Toronto. She was still desperately ill though. Her treatments had been cut short. She needed more, much more.

By now you might be thinking that this couldn't possibly happen in Canada.
But it did happen.

Oh. Did I say my daughter has breast cancer? Sorry, wrong relative, wrong illness. It was someone else close to me, who suffers from schizophrenia.

Nightmare scenarios like this happen every day for mentally ill people and their families.

"I would do anything to have breast cancer over mental illness ... because I would not have to put up with the stigma," said Helen, one of many patients interviewed for the 2006 Senate Report on Mental Illness titled Out of the Shadows at Last.

I know exactly what Helen is saying. Stigma is rampant. Patients are shunned by family and friends and thrown out on the street. People with schizophrenia are called "schizophrenics." When's the last time you called someone with cancer a "cancerite?"

Misconceptions abound. Schizophrenia is not a "split personality" and is not caused by a traumatic event in childhood. Schizophrenia literally means a "split" from "reality." Patients have a medical condition called psychosis, which causes them to perceive things differently from you and me.

The main symptom is bizarre behaviour. Patients may refuse to turn on the TV, citing certain "dangerous" channels. They may unplug the fridge or wear a winter jacket on a hot summer day. They often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. They may insist that God is talking to them. Listless and reclusive, they become suspicious of everyone, especially those trying hardest to help – their families and health-care professionals.

I don't wish to belittle breast cancer, or any cancer, but when you suffer from mental illness, cancer – even with the possibility of death facing you – starts to look better. Way better. I know because my life has been touched by both illnesses.

Anyone with a pulse knows about breast cancer, but what is known about schizophrenia?
We've all heard the scary statistic that one in nine women will develop breast cancer "in her lifetime." Scary, yes, but also misleading. The statistic is true if a woman lives into her 90s and doesn't die of something else.

One in 100 Canadians will develop schizophrenia if they reach the ripe old age of 20. Schizophrenia appears suddenly, out of nowhere, and afflicts young people, men and women equally, just as their adult lives are starting out. My relative became ill while at university.

"Helen" could have gone further. It's more than just stigma that causes problems for people with mental illness. How about neglect? An estimated 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the dirty, mumbling, shambling human beings that rant and rave along downtown streets are victims of untreated schizophrenia.

A 911 crisis call is often the first time a patient receives medical attention. That's how my loved one finally got treatment.

Suicide is the treatment of choice for about 10-to-14 per cent of patients with schizophrenia. This is because for many, the disease is unbearable.
Many more will die far younger than expected due to intolerable life conditions caused by loneliness and neglect.

No human being should have to experience what mentally ill people encounter every day in this country.

Anti-psychotic drugs offer the most successful treatment. The newer the drug the better, due to fewer side effects. At present, my relative is stable but unable to work.

For those concerned about costs, hospitalization continues to be the main cost for our beleaguered health-care system.

For my breast cancer surgery, I was in and out of hospital in 24 hours. My relative with schizophrenia was hospitalized for about four months in 2004.
Public awareness is vital in battling an illness. Breast cancer has set the gold standard for this.

Maybe I'm dreaming in Technicolor, but I believe that if Canadians knew more about mental illness, we'd all be walking, running, golfing and paddling in dragon boats to support mental illness. Maybe we'd even wear a ribbon.

If it hasn't already been taken, I pick red. It's my loved one's favourite colour.

Marilyn Baker is a freelance writer living in Richmond, British Columbia.
thanks heartache for posting that, to me a illness is a illness, whether its cancer, MS or a mental health problem, they should all be treated with the same respect and dignity but sadly they are not. I had a physical problem some years ago and got lots of help and support yet Im left alone now with aniexty, agoraphobia and depression, the services dont want to help or support me. How often do you see programmes on TV raising money for a Mental health charity, not that often compared with other mainstream charities.
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