In a recent study, the Pfizer Mental Health Report indicated that nearly half of all Australians hold inaccurate and harmful views about the nature of severe mental illness—in particular, about schizophrenia. With these inaccurate perceptions having risen by almost 20% since the previous survey (conducted in 2006), this disturbing trend is considered to be on the rise, resulting in widespread discrimination against sufferers of mental illness.
To help dispel some of these myths, we spoke to Elaine Goddard—a fulltime carer and mother of a son with schizophrenia—to help shed some light on how inaccurate and harmful these misconceptions can be.
RESCU: What are the common misconceptions you have encountered regarding schizophrenia?
Elaine Goddard: People believe that people who live with schizophrenia are prone to aggression and/or are dangerous. They must come from dysfunctional families; use drugs; are unemployable or risky employees due to them being unreliable; they are untrustworthy, cannot be left unsupervised around children and are more prone to criminal activity. People believe they are happy (or somehow deserve) to live in substandard accommodation; their opinion does not matter as they are usually irrational; and they are unable to socialise with people other than ‘their own kind’.
RESCU: How do these misconceptions change the way those with schizophrenia are treated?
Elaine Goddard: My experience is that people who live with schizophrenia are treated with suspicion and often disdain. People assume they are unreliable and lazy so they do not give them opportunities for employment. Housing opportunities are limited and often unsuitable, as the practice has been in the past that they (sufferers) are often all grouped together in a cluster or complex, further adding to society’s belief that they cannot socialise with ‘normal’ people.
RESCU: What is it actually like caring for someone with schizophrenia?
Elaine Goddard: It can be extremely frustrating as a parent to see your son treated by the general public, and often by health care professionals, with disdain and a lack of respect. On one hand, as a carer we are expected to provide 24/7 care and supervision to those we are trying to support—we monitor not only our son’s medications but also his nutrition, at times his personal hygiene, his appointments, and his social situations—whilst on the other hand, we’re not given vital information from health care professionals about our son’s change in treatment because it is considered a breach of patient confidentiality.
RESCU: What role do you think popular culture has played in creating these perceptions?
Elaine Goddard: Films and books often criminalise mental illness by portraying people who have a mental illness as being more prone to be involved in criminal activity. They are often depicted as being dirty and gothic looking and living in squalor and/or as drug users, which perpetuates society’s beliefs.
RESCU: Schizophrenia is something that personally affects your family; what have you found to be most difficult about your experience with the illness?
Elaine Goddard: To see our son treated with indifference, disdain and often disrespect not only from members of the public who do not know any better but also from health care professionals that should. The unpredictability of the illness is also frustrating, as it is difficult to plan ahead in case of relapse. Also, to see the lack of employment and housing options, despite constant rhetoric from politicians about how they will make available these services if they are elected.
RESCU: What advice would you give to someone who has had a family member recently diagnosed with a severe mental illness?
Elaine Goddard: Surround yourself with a network of supportive people, both on a personal and professional level, who are positive and can provide you with the correct information regarding your family member’s illness and treatment options. Do not accept services for your family member that are mediocre and do not accept indifference. Be prepared to advocate on behalf of your family member when they are unable to do so themselves, and stand firm on your commitment to support them.
RESCU: If there’s one message you have about schizophrenia, what would it be?
Elaine Goddard: That with a tailor made holistic treatment plan, that includes suitable medication, support systems, and appropriate housing, a person who lives with a severe mental illness can be a valuable asset to society and lead a productive life.
For more information about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder visit www.sfnsw.org.au or www.mifa.org.au
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