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Taking that pill made the voices stop: Series: Courage to Come Back Awards

Lora Grindlay.The Province. Vancouver, B.C.: Apr 17, 2006. pg. A.10


Fourth in a Series. Ran with fact box "She's hugely inspiring", which has been appended to the story.

Articulating her struggles with mental illness gives others hope

The turning point in Renea Mohammed's life came in 2001 when she stopped hearing voices.

For years she'd felt she was under surveillance and heard relentless, belittling voices that drove her to attempt suicide.

Mohammed had refused treatment, only took medication when she was forced to, and lacked the insight to realize she was ill.

Then one day, following her third suicide attempt, she took a pill. The voices stopped.

Mohammed, the 35-year-old recipient of the Courage to Come Back Award in the mental-health category, was amazed -- medication worked to control the paranoid schizophrenia that had controlled her life for so long.

She thought: "If the medication works, then the voices aren't real and if the voices aren't real, then I have schizophrenia."

The realization changed her life.

"That's when I started to take the medication voluntarily and my life got dramatically better," said Mohammed, who now works as a support worker with Vancouver Coastal Health.

With help from the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, Mohammed began to speak about her journey from diagnosis, to years of being untreated, to that day in 2001 when she found a medication that worked.

"When I was first told I had schizophrenia, I didn't know much about the illness. It sounded a bit like getting a death sentence," she said.

Now Mohammed is doing her part in combating the stigma facing the mentally ill.

"I think it's really important for people who are doing well to be open about having the illness," she said. "People with these serious mental illnesses can still lead good, happy lives and sometimes that means learning how to live well with some symptoms."

Schizophrenia gradually took over her life while she studied at the University of B.C., taking a master's degree in library and information studies.

"I would have the sensation like I was being watched, even though there wasn't anyone there. I came to believe that I was under surveillance," she said.

The voices began late one night as she worked on an assignment and her husband slept. They laughed at her, humiliated her, and by morning they were daring her to kill herself.

"I would hear a running commentary constantly about what a terrible, rotten person I was," Mohammed said. "The voices were really hard to live with. They were the most difficult part of my illness."

School became impossibly hard -- she felt those surveilling her were working with university officials. She once walked late into class and believed the day's lecture was on her personal journals.

"I believed there was nothing wrong with me, so I didn't want treatment," she said. "I didn't want to get drugged. I thought I was being set up to look like I was crazy."

Mohammed finished her degree, but she refused treatment for the next four years and attempted suicide three times.

Then she found the medication that worked and silenced the voices bedevilling her.

"My 20s were really hard. My 30s have been great. Things got a lot better for me," she said.

Mohammed earned the highest overall mark in her community mental- health worker program at Douglas College. She has taught classes to and supported the mentally ill and speaks to groups about her illness twice a month.

She aims to pass on the idea that, with hope, life can get better.

"If someone had looked at me when I was really, really ill, I don't know [if] they would think I would be like I am now," she said.

The Coast Mental Health Foundation's Courage to Come Back Awards honour those who have shown inspiration and courage in overcoming illness, adversity or injury. Awards are presented May 4 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Visit www.coastfoundation.com.

- Watch for the fifth Courage to Come Back instalment in next Monday's Province.

lgrindlay(AT)png.canwest.com

SHE'S HUGELY INSPIRING

Susan Inman met Renea Mohammed when she attended a B.C. Schizophrenia Society group for families dealing with mental illness. Mohammed spoke at the meeting.

"Here was this wonderful, clear-headed, articulate, knowledgeable person who had had this awful experience and come out the other side," said Inman.

"It was wonderful to start to see a pathway through this. Seeing her was hugely inspiring."
 

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