*Note: My goal here is to put a more human face to several psychiatric disorders. I hope you will read and learn. All names have been changed and identities concealed.
As part of my undergraduate experience I wanted to do some volunteer work in the community. The university I attended had a program running that enabled me to do just that. I was privileged to work in three different settings. One was a care facility that dealt with geriatric patients. The other larger facility I worked in was a halfway house for women who had been discharged from the state psychiatric hospital. I also worked with someone in a private home. I will be talking about the two latter experiences in this post.
When the LCSW (licensed clinical social worker) interviewed me for the job and match me up with patients, I had not given working with schizophrenics much thought. I was excited to learn and my fear factor was low. I must have said something that made them think of matching me with Ann.
My first assignment was to work with a woman who had been out of the hospital for four years. (Remember that I’m a young, enthusiastic, university student who still thought of herself as indestructible. I didn’t give a second thought to being in a private home with a schizophrenic. I didn’t even think that something terrible could happen to me. Ann was just someone who needed some help. I was someone who wanted to not only offer what help I could—I wanted to learn. More later.)
Ann had an adolescent onset with her schizophrenia. Her intelligence had been affected, and I found that I was working with a woman who had the equivalent intelligence of a fourth-grade education. The social worker explained this to me before I had met Ann, but seeing it in action changes the hearing of the information. My job with Ann was to get her out of the house so that she could eventually learn to take the bus to the day treatment center in a larger town. They had also hoped that I could find a way to teach Ann about taking better care of her diet. This was to be in preparation for a weight-loss program they hoped to enroll her in.
It began with tiny things. First, I spent time with Ann. I had to let Ann feel safe with me if I ever hoped to get her away from her home. When she finally made her first attempts to leave the house, they were small. First we walked outside for five minutes. Eventually we went to the nearby park. Then mini health lessons sandwiched between talking about being away from her house. If she began to panic, we returned to the house. She learned safety and I encouraged her in her confidence.
I learned a great deal in working with Ann. I never asked her about what being schizophrenic was like. I did ask her why she was willing to take medication that caused her to have terrible side effects. I admit to being curious, and when we had built up a good relationship, I queried her as to why she was willing to swallow pills that others would take for a brief period of time, go off, and then wind up back in the hospital because of not taking the drugs. “Why would you do that?” I asked. She replied: “I don’t want to go back to the hospital. EVER. I’d rather take these pills because that is a terrible place to be and it is scary in there.” Scary? The reality of being in the hospital was worse than what she’d go through to be there? That is a powerful reason to take your medication.
Several years later I found myself waiting for a bus to get to school and I heard Ann yell hello as she passed by in a car. I did a double take: That is a thinner Ann!!! I found out that the work I had done with her paid off in big ways. She was able to get to the cooking classes and into the weight-loss program. She was still taking the medication. Her success impacted me in ways that helped me in my future work as a mental health professional.
I’ve thought about the statement Ann made about taking medication. I’ve thought of it from understanding the terrors of what a person with schizophrenia can endure. My understanding is not complete because I can’t feel or see as they do. I’ve come to respect that statement made so many years ago and I take that with me in my work. Ann impacted me in powerful ways that I continue to discover.
Ann is part of the one percent in the US that suffer from schizophrenia. Most of this one percent desire some form of treatment so that they can live as best they can. Some don’t understand the need to swallow the pills. Some can’t see beyond the side effects of the medication, and others think that having a symptom-free life for a short time means that they don’t need the pills any longer. Because of those thoughts, the cycle of hospitalization and illness continues. This is the talked-about “revolving door” that leads to nowhere.
After working with Ann, I was asked to go to a halfway house and run a fun music group for the residents there. “Get them to sing, talk, and create something,” I was told. I could do that because I like to sing and create things.
The group I ran had eight members. Four of the women were named Ann. (I wondered to myself if there was some kind of strange coincidence that so many of the women I was working with were named Ann.) The women were wonderful to get to know.
The group was a short-term project that managed to get the women to interact more on a light-hearted level. During my time running the group, one of the Anns—and my favorite group member—went off of her medication and was rehospitalized.
When Ann went back to the hospital, it affected the other seven women deeply. They cared about each other and were working to integrate back into the community. That following group session was a somber one in which we just sat and sang some sad songs. Each woman had her fears and knew that the same thing could happen to her. They had lost a friend to a relapse.
Seeing the impact of what had happened to this Ann sobered me to the realities of the population I was working with. I was told what had happened: A hallucination had caused her to think that she could fly. She tried, failed, and cracked three of her ribs.
While schizophrenia can wreak havoc on the mind, it does not mean that the person with schizophrenia will ever become violent with others. It would be better to state that this population need support and love because they are at greater risk for self-harm and suicide.
I think of my five Anns every once in a blue moon. I wonder what has happened to them. I wonder how they have been treated or mistreated; understood or misunderstood. I hope that they have found a supportive place. The fact is that my hopes for them are just hopes. The truth is that I know dealing with schizophrenia is never easy.
This population may not affect you personally. But they are someone’s mother, father, brother, or sister. Would you come to comfort someone you knew who was in need of help? Those who are schizophrenic are in need of so much love and help! They might not be able to return that love and caring, but they need it all the same.
These are people who are alone, living under bridges, because there aren’t funds for treatment. These are men, women, and children who deserve our help. Those with mental illness have no voice. We, who are not burdened with schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, are the voice. Where is your voice?
Now, I should also mention the successful and more well-known schizophrenics: John Nash, Peter Green, Syd Barrett, and others. People who are schizophrenic do work, live peaceful lives, and contribute to society in productive ways that have enriched our lives. I chose these members of society because I know of their work. There are others. Will you raise your voice to help these other people? They are part of the group society judges.
If my words have caused you to think, that is good. If my words on this cyber page are causing you to want to know more, I’ve done my humble job. I’ll leave you with a teaser: What did John Nash do that won him a Nobel Prize? What did John and the King of Sweden talk about when he won the prize?