“Leif, what’s going on here? I thought we were friends.”
“You’re not my friend,” I calmly said to my high school coordinator Mr. Howard who was flanked by four other administrators, all staring me down. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
I couldn’t tell anyone why I said that.
Mr. Howard had been in the military and also the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And I liked him.
Few dared to mess with him, but I was beyond caring.
My words must have struck a note.
“Call the police,” he said, and one of the staff members ran out of the room.
Rooting Out the Stigma
As I sat in the office under those judgmental eyes, time felt somehow warped. I had just been in a very one-sided and brutal fight in gym class with the boyfriend of a girl I liked, and I knew I was going to be taken back to the provincial psychiatric hospital. Two cops came in what seemed like seconds. At first, I went with them quietly.
If only they hadn’t taken me out when all of my schoolmates were lined up in the hallway. If the other students hadn’t been there, I probably wouldn’t have started a second fight with the officers.
I held my own at first but ended up being put into a headlock and handcuffs. I was returned to and deposited in Alberta Hospital, where any misbehavior meant you would receive forced injections of vile pharmaceuticals, like chlorpromazine. This would leave me a drooling, paralyzed blob, and to add to that I would be tossed into an empty room that locks from the outside. The staff, especially the psychiatrists, had all the power.
That was 31 years ago. A lot has changed since then, but not everything.
Since that spring of 1990, I have been hospitalized many times. In the early years, it was often an annual occasion for me. In almost all of these incidents, I spent a month or more in a locked ward. There are many things to be wary of in a locked ward. Some people may be unstable. There are staff members who can be in toxic moods and can easily become violent. There is always a seclusion room where anyone can be locked for hours or even days without trial or jury until, by some mystical formula, they choose to let you back into the freedom of a locked ward.
But the biggest enemy when you are in the hospital is boredom. Time crawls. And it seems your skin crawls, too. It just isn’t a pleasant place to be when you need help. That really can’t be blamed on the hospital or staff.
The boredom isn’t from not having anything to do. Alberta Hospital, publicly funded by a generous provincial government, has such amenities as a library, a computer room, a swimming pool, table tennis, video games, a full gymnasium, a thrifty clothing store, tennis courts, bingo, dances and even a movie rental shop (all of which were free to patients).
The boredom comes from not wanting to do anything as a result of being heavily medicated. The medication leaves one unable to play sports, work out, or even have the concentration to sit still and read. Even the idea of one day leaving the hospital seems inconceivably far off.
My parents were so much of a help at this time. They would travel over 30 miles to see me every single day. Without their care and support, my time there would have been excruciating.
Though my dad put up a strong face, others told me he would burst into tears at the thought of my confinement in that place.
There’s Hope in Recovery
Thankfully, a new movement is changing the face of mental health and addiction treatment. New ideas and new policies — and even some concepts borrowed from 12-step groups — are being developed and tested. Together, they’re called “The Recovery Model.”
It began being implemented and then taking root for psychiatric treatment in the late ’80s/early ’90s in America, yet it still hasn’t trickled down into the culture.
The goal is to re-humanize and give voice to those previously hidden away from society because of their illnesses. A key component is giving back as much as possible of the power in treatment to the patient. Formerly, people who displayed behavior that could be deemed as due to a mental illness were treated very harshly. They were — and some still are — often treated as though they were disobedient children. All the power rested with your assigned psychiatrist and a few staff members, and the client was the last person they had to report to.
Under the recovery model of treatment, my mental health intervention in high school would have been vastly different. My first contact would have been with a trained social worker or psychiatric nurse. Police would have been present but out of sight. The counselor would reason with me.
Most likely I would have asked them to take me out of the school when classes were back in session and no one would be lined up to see me being arrested. Just from that, a two-month hospital stay would have been pared down to a few weeks or at most a month, and my chances of returning to school, home and work would have been much greater.
Another key difference one would see under the recovery model would apply to my psychiatrist. He or she wouldn’t have had supreme power. I would have a voice.
The voices of other staff members would have been different too. The inpatient treatment team would have included people with lived experience of mental illness. Psychiatrists can and do work miracles. It is worth noting that psychiatrists are regular medical doctors who have specialized in the human brain. In many instances, they are qualified to counsel patients, but the fact remains their main purpose is to change the mental state of the patient through chemical therapy.
Few take the time to explain medication changes or the need for the patient to continue current medications. An understanding of how and why you are being treated can be critical for medication compliance, which is essential in maintaining most patient’s progress.
“The biggest enemy when you are in the hospital is boredom. Time crawls. And it seems your skin crawls, too. It just isn’t a pleasant place to be when you need help.”the author writes
I am personally on several medications. Valproic acid as a mood stabilizer, Prozac as an antidepressant and a bi-weekly injection of Fluanxol as an anti-psychotic. It took years to find the proper dosage of each of them, but the result was incredible. I have my life back. There was even an incident in recent history where a small change in my pill regimen — which was supervised by an excellent psychiatrist — caused me to fall deep into psychosis. I slowly became almost totally out of touch with reality again, though I was taking all medications as prescribed. As a result of the psychosis, I ended up needing to spend five weeks in a psychiatric ward.
Before that, I had not needed to be in any type of facility for 18 years.
Medications are essential, and so are psychiatrists. I have heard from many sources that if a patient is given therapy alone, they fare better overall than if they were given medication alone. The solution is not to stop one for the other, the best idea is to do both, and to understand that patients are more than an illness. They are human beings with physical, social and even spiritual needs.
I have had many kind doctors, many incredibly intelligent ones. Almost 20 years ago, during a stay in the provincial psychiatric hospital which lasted six agonizing months, I was under the care of a psychiatrist who was petty and ineffective. He couldn’t even fulfill a simple request to allow me to change doctors. It left me powerless, but it shouldn’t have been that way.
In the recovery model, my opinion would have counted just as much as his. It may not factor into all aspects of my treatment, but the key thing would be that I would have a chance to speak my piece. As things went, I never got a chance to talk about my side of my mental health interventions until years later when I became an author.
The Mentally Ill Are Humans
Back in 1991, when I was 19 and in Alberta Hospital, I had a psychiatrist who was a fine doctor but had poor interpersonal skills. He was a pilot, and I told him that I had thought about flying for a living. He didn’t explain anything to me.
“You are never going to be a pilot with your mental illness!” he definitively pronounced.
He didn’t even tell me what my diagnosis was or why I shouldn’t fly.
Shortly after leaving Alberta Hospital, I went out to the western coast in Vancouver, BC. I took out a student loan to pay for a commercial pilot’s license. I wasn’t able to complete the entire course, because I couldn’t pass the medical requirements, which is understandable.
I eventually had to move on to focus on other things, but I had the most joyful and fulfilling time of my life learning to fly.
So many other parts of who I am were improved by the experience, from my driving skills to my self-confidence. I experienced joys few people understand, like landing a plane myself or nailing my first mid air stunt.
I still rent planes now and then (with an instructor to supervise) and experience the incredible thrill of flying. It almost seems to me that telling me I would never fly would be like a person saying they wanted to learn more about cooking because it makes them happy, and the doctor telling the person, “You will never be a cook, you have a mental illness!” and trying to discourage the person from doing any learning or schooling to do with cooking, despite that the person would grow and enhance their life simply from trying and learning, even failing.
The recovery model shakes the whole psychiatric care system from its core of being a reward and punishment model to a way of looking at psychiatry focusing on the patient’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual needs.
“Just from that, a two-month hospital stay would have been pared down to a few weeks or at most a month, and my chances of returning to school, home and work would have been much greater.”the author writes
One of my jobs includes giving Lived Experience Community Education Presentations through the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta. This work has taken me to some places that once existed among a great deal of ignorance of any kind of patient-focused, humanizing aspect of the mental health equation.
I often give presentations at the Police Recruit Training Centre. One day I bumped into a police officer who saw one of my presentations on the street. He told me, “I had two mental health calls today, and what you taught me made such a huge difference.”
Other times I have spoken to high school classes and had students come to realize they have an untreated mental illness. Then they were able to get mental health care before their lives fall apart. Having staff members with lived experience of mental health issues is critical and a key plank of the recovery model.
Once, I was asked to give a speech to a group of patients, including a young man named Kevin. I talked about my hospital experience and the non-linear journey I had to take to re-integrate with my community and work towards full mental health.
At the end of my talk, Kevin said this was the first time he had been told anything in the hospital he could use in his treatment and his life.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues is harmful to so many people who are struggling. It affects housing and employment, makes it harder for many to seek treatment and causes countless other problems. But the recovery model tries to counter those harmful myths.
Many of the falsehoods come from fictional media stories where it is very easy to label a murderer as a person with schizophrenia or another form of mental illness.
The truth is, the percentage of people with schizophrenia who act out violently is just 1%, which is the same percentage of people in general society who act out violently. Further studies have shown people with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators.
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
- 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
We can change these trends.
The recovery model tries to give hope to everyone who seeks treatment. It asks that when people have mental illnesses, they are not shunned and taken to a semi-secret location, hidden far away from any highway down an unimproved road, as Edmonton’s hospital is.
They remain in this nightmare of a situation until someone deems them sane again. They should never leave their community, their friends, school, job. Above all, they should never stop being treated like human beings.
If you or someone else is having a mental breakdown:
Americans can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255), 1.800.SUICIDE, text MHA to 741741, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.