When Bjorn Harper’s daughter Ingrid first started behaving strangely, he couldn’t help but wonder why.
Then things got worse.
“We knew something was wrong, but we had no idea it was mental illness,” Harper said.
“It comes out of the blue, with no warning,” he said. “It’s a pretty traumatic diagnosis, because it’s a chronic illness, and it doesn’t go away. It can be managed, but it can’t be cured.”
It began with Ingrid’s suspicions about her family, her accusations that they were plotting against her, and her claims that the household was going to be attacked. When Ingrid fell deeper into the grips of psychosis, and began to show severe paranoia, Harper consulted a psychiatrist — who referred him to the East York chapter of the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO).
He was introduced to the “Caring and Sharing” program, a weekly discussion on schizophrenia, where he got advice from members on how to get additional help.
When Ingrid wouldn’t acknowledge her illness and refused assistance, Harper decided to file a “Form Two” under the Ontario Mental Health Act, which authorizes police to take a person to a physician for examination. The physician can then order the patient to a psychiatric facility for a mental health assessment.
“It’s the hardest thing you can do, from a psychological point of view,” Harper said. “You don’t want to do it, but you have to.”
Ingrid, now 36, is doing much better, thanks to treatment. For Harper, having the support of the East York SSO chapter played a tremendous role in helping him and his family get through a traumatic period.
Today, Harper serves as the president of the chapter, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sept. 15.
“If it hadn’t been for this chapter and the help that I had, I don’t know what I would have done,” Harper said. “Hopefully (as president) I can help some people the same way that I was helped.”
Ruth Malloy has been with the SSO’s East York chapter for almost its entirety, and was the first facilitator of the Caring and Sharing program. She has three children with schizophrenia, Phil, Helen, and Ruth. She said it was during one of Helen’s severe psychotic episodes that she decided to get into community advocacy, because there was not enough support for schizophrenic patients.
Malloy said that during one episode, her daughter was refused admission to Sunnybrook hospital because there were not enough beds available.
“For there to be no beds available for an emergency, for someone as sick as my daughter was, that’s when I decided to go public. I said that someone has to do this,” Malloy said.
She said the experience inspired her to get the issue out to the media. But she didn’t get the results she wanted.
“I phoned the newspaper, and they printed the story a couple days later on the back page of the sports section,” Malloy said. “If they would have refused a cancer patient, I bet it would have been on the front page.”
As a result, Malloy decided to raise awareness of the illness herself. She approached Michael Prue, then the mayor of the Borough of East York, and asked him what he knew about schizophrenia. He admitted he didn’t know much, so he attended the Caring and Sharing sessions and has been an avid supporter since.
Now the MPP for Beaches-East York, Prue attended the chapter’s 20th anniversary observance, held at Toronto East General Hospital on Sept. 15.
“I’m here to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the great job you’ve done, and for the great work you continue to do,” Prue said.
Others, such as Laura Tong, a long-time member of the East York chapter and organizer of the 20th anniversary event, had their own poignant stories, and advice from experience.
“You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, and if you don’t acknowledge mental illness in your family, it will never change,” Tong said. “I’m one of the people who didn’t accept it at first; I told my neighbours my kids had nervous breakdowns.
“But then I realized I wasn’t the only one, so now I’m trying to fight the stigma (surrounding psychosis),” she said. “The main objective is to get people thinking about schizophrenia.”