Society’s prejudice makes mental illness worse

By Reg Murray*

I suffer from bipolar disorder. The onset occurred in mid 1990 when I was 47 and took the form of a severe psychotic episode.

This was followed by three years of severe depression and then a series of depressive and psychotic episodes culminating in a suicide attempt on 13 Sept 1995 which should, by all the rules of electrocution, have been successful.

I was initially diagnosed as a schizophrenic and then as a paranoid schizophrenic. There was some excuse for this because there is a considerable overlap in the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar illness and sometimes only a diligent psychiatrist can diagnose the difference. I got into the hands of such a psychiatrist after the suicide attempt and he brought the illness under control.

It has been almost fully controlled with the drugs olanzapine and sodium valproate since mid 1996. Since then I have suffered no depressive or psychotic episodes: however I continue to experience what I call “normals” and “highs”. The highs are characterized by enhanced motivation and a tendency to be a “smart alec” but I have learned to hide these, particularly from my wife who is terrified that I might slip back into major mental illness.

So from mid 1996 to the present – 23 years – I have lived a normal working life (I still work part time at age 75). During that period I have “come out” as a bipolar sufferer to just three people, all work colleagues, two being medical doctors and another a trusted person.

Major life step

The reason for such a small number of people I have confided in is that I believe that, now that homosexuality has become much more widely accepted, it is a much more major life step to “come out” about suffering from mental illness than to “come out” as a homosexual.

This, I believe, is due to prejudice against mental illness.

I think that the reasons for this prejudice are various forms of fear. Firstly the fear that mentally ill people are dangerous, particularly schizophrenics. In the case of bipolar very few people in normal society have any idea of the forms it takes. All they know is that it is “a mental illness” and, again, that mentally ill people are dangerous or may behave in strange ways.

One time when I was locked up in the Larundel Psychiatric Facility I struck up a conversation with a schizophrenic girl also in there. We were all “nuts” of one sort or another so the two of us were on completely neutral ground. I asked her about the voices which she heard in her head from time to time and the things which they drove her to do.

So there we were, for an instant, a completely normal girl talking to a completely normal guy who was greatly interested in the manifestations of mental illness which were happening in the girl’s head. If she had been outside relating to some John Citizen she would have been “one of those dangerous schizos who murder people”.

The other fear people have of the mentally ill is the fear of infection. As with HIV-AIDS, there is absolutely no actual risk of catching the illness. But regular people have no comprehension of what it is like to be mentally ill and have a phobia that they might develop it or, already, unknowingly, be suffering from it.

There is a strong tendency to view the mentally ill as being incapable of normal rational thought. This is even prevalent amongst mental health professionals. When I was growing up we had neighbours who dedicated their lives to caring for an appallingly crippled girl with cerebral palsy. I have to admit that I was disgracefully prejudiced against that girl. I thought that the parents were wasting their lives and that the daughter should be consigned to an institution to die.

I now know that inside that twisted, contorted body was a perfectly normal human being in a nightmarish trap and that the parents did, in their way, communicate with her. The same applies to the mentally ill.

‘Informed consent’ questioned

Under the Mental Health Act the regulations with respect to compulsory (involuntary) patients state that they must give their “informed consent” to treatment. The Catch 22 is that the rules also state that if the authorities deem the patients incapable of consenting the authorities can consent on the patient’s behalf.

Back in my Larundel days there was not the slightest pretence of “informing” or seeking “consent” – if you argued with them they held you down on a thin foam mattress on the floor and stuck a needle into you (an exercise which one quickly learned was not worth the trouble).

It seems that under the “new” 2014 Act that closer attention is given to “consent”, but in the past year the supporters of three patients have been to the Supreme Court seeking to vary their treatment where the patients have been deemed to be not capable of consenting. In one a young schizophrenic man was seeking to have more say in his medication doses, in the other two the patients did not want to be subjected to multiple doses of ECT treatment.

I don’t know what happened in the first case but in the second the Judge ruled that the patients, even in their ill state, were capable of informed reasoning and refusing to allow them to make the decsisions contravened their civil rights. In both cases the judge banned the treatments.

So, without a doubt, there is massive prejudice in the community against the mentally ill. The treatment of mental illness progresses in Australia in fits and starts but I believe that the prejudice will always be there.

*  Reg Murray is a CLA member who keeps a close watch on mental health issues, particularly in Victoria. 190416

ECT: Electroconvulsive Therapy


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