People with a mental illness face an uncertain existence as the stigma attached to mental illness leads to discrimination in families and communities where they live and, often, their future is bleak as they get denied job opportunities.
Alana Watson, the chairperson of the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorders Alliance (SABDA), has first-hand experience of caring for someone with a mental illness. Her own daughter, who is now a 42 year-old adult, has Bipolar. Bipolar is one of over 400 disorders that are classified as psychiatric illnesses according to the South African Federation for Mental Health. Watson says her greatest worry while her daughter was still very young was whether she will be able to integrate successfully into society and find employment.
‘ In all honesty, a lot of people who have a child or family relative who’s got, say, schizophrenia, it’s a very difficult situation because quite often they can’t get a job. If you don’t tell your prospective employer that you have a mental illness and they find out… you’re damned if you do tell and you’re damned if you don’t tell’, she says.
Watson called on friends and families who live with mentally ill people to be more tolerant and get themselves informed about the condition that their loved one suffers from.
‘I think as carers we need to be patient… and in defence of the carers, it’s not an easy illness to understand. And when it happens to you, you feel like you’re in the deep blue sea’¦ you don’t know how to handle it or where to go for help’, says a visibly concerned Watson.
Watson faced great difficulties herself when raising her daughter who has a bipolar disorder. But with continuous and intense treatment, the daughter is now stable.
‘She still has the occasional… what we call a ‘wobbly’, but she understands her illness, she has an insight into the illness now, she realizes that she has got to adjust to the illness if anything goes slightly wrong’.
A grown up adult, Watson’s daughter is now gainfully employed as a data capturer and is also married.
‘She met her husband, who’s schizophrenic, through the support group. Both of them are well stabilised, both of them are working. They are productive members of society. Look – that does not happen to all the people with mental illness. The biggest problem that people with a mental illness have is the stigma attached to mental illness’¦ that is a very hard road’, says Watson.
Alana Watson said most mental illnesses can be stabilised if identified and treated early. She advised parents and loved ones to identify symptoms.
‘Unusual behaviour’¦ Unusual comments’¦ It’s very difficult to describe because everybody is different and some people present different kinds of symptoms. My daughter was just very, very pleased and happy with everything, but she couldn’t finish a task. She would put a cup down and the kettle on and, then, forget all about putting the saucer and putting the tea-spoon and making the tea. She just couldn’t finish a task’, says Watson.
According to Wits University psychology lecturer, Malose Langa, a lot of parents tend to blame themselves when their child is diagnosed with a mental illness disorder.
‘It’s every parent’s wish to have, I guess a ‘normal’ child. And when you have a child with such a condition, you then find yourself asking all kinds of questions. And in communities, let’s say in a very remote rural area where there are all these cultural beliefs, people can even start to make all kinds of accusations… that we have a child with this condition because so and so has bewitched you. And others, the interpretation is that this is a punishment. God is punishing me’, says Langa.
Langa advises families and friends caring for mentally ill loved ones to work together with the mentally ill person and go for family or group therapy.
‘Let’s say, in your family there is someone with bipolar… you can imagine it will be very frustrating for family members to cope with such a person. So, in most cases, you do family therapy where you invite everyone. And in doing family therapy, you also do a bit of psycho-education around the condition, to say, this is bipolar and these are the symptoms. These are the things you need to do in helping the person deal with the condition. Bringing them in the process of therapy, it can be quite useful for family members’, Langa says.