January 16, 2012

Mental illnesses are a barrier to so many things in life.

We lost a good friend at Christmas. She was one of the first people in my parish to make friends with my wife when she came to Canada. We've watched her youngest son grow up, and I have tried to be a positive male role model for him. She was a single mom with nine children.

On Christmas Eve, she had a massive heart attack and died three days later. She has left behind a family in total shock, grieving for the woman who was both mother and father to them all.

These things are especially difficult around the holidays. Our parish had three funerals this week. It can't help but make us take a look at our own mortality.

My wife and I both had close encounters with death when we were younger, so I suppose that has also made us more in touch with the idea that death can take you at any time.

For myself, I know that I have a shorter life expectancy than most because of my schizophrenia.

On average, the life expectancy of someone with a serious mental illness is 25 years less than the general public. The medications that I take for my schizophrenia are quite toxic. They can cause nasty side effects that can include extreme weight gain, damage to the liver and diabetes.

That is a tradeoff I am willing to make for stability and sanity. Surviving with a mental illness can take all your time and strength, with nothing left over for the routine medical conditions that pop up as we age.

When someone with a history of mental illness enters the emergency room, there can be some serious roadblocks to appropriate care.

How can a doctor trust a person's description of their symptoms when hallucinations are a major part of their illness?

Those with serious mental illnesses often self-medicate, and can be labeled as "drug seekers" on their medical records, so when they enter the emergency room, they may be ignored at first.

That's what happened to a dear friend of my wife. She had bipolar and a history of drug-seeking and abuse. When she entered the emergency room with severe chest pain, the doctors thought she was just looking for pain medications.


By the time they took her symptoms seriously, the pneumonia that was causing the pain was beyond their ability to cure. She was listed as a victim of the swine flu epidemic two years ago, but her mental illness was a contributing cause as well.

Those with mental illnesses are often poor advocates for their medical care. Some of the illnesses actually cause one to have a fear of doctors and medications. Something like making a doctor's appointment or picking up a prescription may seem like a routine, easy task for most of us.

When you take psychiatric medications, easy tasks can seem like running marathons. Doctors can find us difficult to deal with, unpleasant even, and sometimes will rush through office visits. That can lead to missing important symptoms.

It may also be difficult for a patient who is having recurring chest pain to recognize it as such if they routinely have phantom pains caused by their illness. Those on heavy doses of psychiatric medications may also be so sedated that they won't feel a symptomatic pain that would send most of us running to a doctor.

Even when someone like me is being treated in a hospital for something as serious as a heart attack, they may not get state of the art care. Sometimes they are afraid to consent to invasive procedures.


Health care professionals are much less likely to establish a trusting relationship with a combative or abusive patient. The ultimate cruelty of the illness is that we can struggle for decades sometimes to regain control of our lives only to lose them at too young an age.

As we continue to grieve the loss of a good woman of faith taken from her family way to early, I can't help but wonder how many more of my friends will be taken too soon.

(Catherine Mardon is a student at Newman Theological College and Austin Mardon received the Order of Canada for advocacy for the mentally ill. They attend St Alphonsus Parish.)