Those with mental illness, their carers and support organisations say schizophrenia needs greater public attention and they fear what this week’s federal budget holds.
There are almost 250,000 Australians with schizophrenia and another million people help care for them.
Anne Smith (not her real name) is 32, married, in a successful job and would like to have children.
She remembers a turning point seven years ago when she was in a road accident.
“I got rear-ended and the stress threw me into some psychosis but I didn’t know what I had and I just didn’t get better,” she said.
“It was a psychiatrist who saw me for the sake of the insurance company and he said, ‘You’ve got schizophrenia’.”
“It’s like any diagnosis with a lifelong illness when you find out you’ve got it, it hurts. It took a good six months to come to terms with it,” she said.
“But it also explained a lot, so in a way it was a relief, all of a sudden a lot of my eccentricities made sense.”
Anne Smith’s issues including hearing voices.
“[It] turns out I’ve been hearing them my whole life, I thought it was normal,” she said.
“I thought it was normal to walk down the street and have everyone talking about me and saying my name and calling me. I just though everyone knew me which wasn’t unbelievable because I came from a small town.”
Functioning with illness
Anne Smith gets a lot of help from her psychologist, psychiatrist and GP and counts herself as lucky.
“Only 10 per cent of people with the illness function as well as I do, that’s a blessing and a curse because it means I can go to work but I’ve got to deal with the schizophrenia,” she said.
The woman has used her graphic design skills to create a ‘mindfulness’ smartphone app as a way to help deal with anxiety when in busy places.
“Imagine a leaf floating on a stream, floating away from you and you can attach the things causing you anxiety onto the leaf and watch it go,” she said.
Another woman, Helen, has a daughter who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 23, after a bout of depression.
“[I felt] shocked, fearful of the unknown, but you know it’s not all that scary, a lot of people overreact to the word, to the name, but it’s about separating the illness from the person,” she said.
Helen’s daughter is studying and living independently, but has had relapses and hospital admissions along the way.
Helen says carers also face stresses and must look after their own health.
“If they identify increasing stress [they need] to seek support for themselves and their family and to try and create a self-care plan in order to stay well so they can support their loved ones in a time of crisis,” she said.
Schizophrenia has ‘special place in people’s fears’
Unlike the attention given to mental illnesses such as depression, there remains a stigma about schizophrenia, says David Meldrum, the CEO of the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia.
“Schizophrenia definitely remains the last big undiscussable,” he said.
“Nobody at a dinner party volunteers that their partner or their son or whatever has got schizophrenia.
“Schizophrenia somehow has a special place in people’s fears and I think that can only be worked through by us talking about it.”
He says federally funded services including the Targeted Community Care Program and Partners in Recovery are vital support for schizophrenia sufferers and their families.
But he worries where the axe might fall on budget night.
“At the moment they’re being very tight-lipped about what’s in the potential budget cuts,” he said.
“I’m really hoping that people can recognise that these are the most vulnerable Australians and their help should be continued and expanded.”
This article first appeared on ‘Yahoo7’ on 12 May 2014.