Mental Illness Hurts the Family More than the Victim

As our last blog entry, we posted the speech Kim Calsaferri gave when she received The Honorable Mention for the City of Vancouver’s Access & Inclusion Award. She received this Honorable Mention for the work she has done to promote service user and family involvement in the mental health system. In response to her speech, Zerom Seyoum sent us the following article – our next post. Zerom is a Peer Support Worker and author of two books: “Not Guilty but not Free” and “Alone in the Crowd.”

Mental Illness Hurts the Family More than the Victim

Zerom Seyoum

My family was back on another continent and didn’t know that their son in Canada was languishing in a mental hospital. Would they have been hurt more if they were to know the predicament of their son than the parents in Canada who visit relentlessly their son or daughter who is also languishing in a mental hospital?

In the psychiatric hospital I was in, not many patients got visitors. The reasons could be that the parents were in another province and didn’t know their son or daughter was in a mental hospital, or they might know, but have no means of getting out for a visit, or they could be deceased.  But for the few patients who were getting visits, the visits were continuous and regular.

I remember one fellow. We’ll call him “Bob”. “Bob” had a visitor ever Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The staff used to come to the day room and tell him, “You have a visitor.” He went to the visiting room and sat next to his visitor who was his mother. No greetings. No talk. His mother tried to talk to him and would continue to talk, but “Bob” would say nothing. “Bob” would be deep in thought, staring at his mother,  but living in another world. Two hours later the staff would mention that the visiting hours were over and his mother would depart.  The same thing took place when she  came back on the following visiting days. She kept visiting him for fifteen years. When she stopped coming, we heard she had died.

Seven years later, “Bob” came to me and said “Zerom, do you know my mother died? She visited me every visiting day when she was alive. She tried to talk to me but I was unable to understand what she was saying and I said nothing. I know she was trying to talk to me.  But I was unable to say anything. Now I miss my mother and I have a lot of things to talk with her about, but she is nowhere to be found.” I told him “Probably you were listening to some deafening voices that blocked everything she was saying.”

Place yourself in this woman’s position and try to understand mental illness: everyday looking for a day when her son would be healed and recover from his illness but dieing before seeing “Bob” in his present condition.

Last year I met “Bob” in downtown Vancouver. I was happy to see him and I offered to buy him coffee. He turned down my offer and said, “I have no time, I am going to register for culinary school at the Vancouver Community College. I am good at cooking and if I finish my training I can work at one of the fast food restaurants.”

In another case, I have seen another woman visiting her son every Sunday for years and years. One day she was crying and weeping while walking from the bus stop to the hospital. We’ll call her “Mrs. Smith”.  I said,””‘Mrs. Smith” don’t cry, your son is doing fine.” She said, “I visited my son for the last twenty years everyday. My husband died ten years ago. I am alone and receive old age pension. It is not enough to make ends meet. I am old and I am drained of all my energy. Just to have enough to eat at this age I work as a cook at a restaurant. At the end of the day I get so exhausted that I can’t even have energy to eat. You see I was always hopping that one day my son would be healed and would get a job and help me in my old age. He doesn’t seem to understand. I don’t understand what he is saying. And he doesn’t understand what I am saying to him. Sometimes I feel he is healed and he will leave the hospital and he will go back to his previous job. Sometimes he does not seem to understand me and I can’t understand him.”

Place yourself as a parent and as this mother. She probably will die before he gets out of the hospital. Even if he gets out of the hospital he probably will go to a boarding home. The mother doesn’t understand the seriousness of his illness and that he will be in the hospital for a long time.

Watching these parents, I felt relieved that my parents were not here and didn’t know I was languishing in a mental hospital.  In my case, I came to Canada for school and ended up in a mental hospital. Years went by and my sisters and my brother started to worry.  They kept asking me when I was going to finish school and when I would come to visit them. I kept lying to them, sometimes saying I was still in school and sometimes saying that I was very busy working.

Eventually my brother was so worried he decided to visit me.  I thought they would not come because they would have no money for transportation.  But somehow they were able to pitch in enough money to send my brother to visit me.  He was shocked when he met me at a mental hospital, but happy that I was ready to be discharged and recovering. But when my sisters heard the news they were  worried and couldn’t  handle the fate I had faced. One of them came and visited. She was happy that I was in a subsidized apartment  and out of the hospital.  She couldn’t believe all the education I had was wasted.  She thought I was dead and alive again.  She kept telling me not to look down when I walk and to try to keep my chin up; and to tuck my shirt in my pants… on and on as if I was a child. Seeing me in the condition I am in now made her, on one hand, cry and, on the other hand, be happy to see me face to face after all these years.

My family would have been crying and weeping all the years if they knew I was in the hospital and not going to school or working. They thought,  as a son and brother, I would save them from the abject poverty they were in. Mental illness hurts the family more than the patient himself.

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4 responses to “Mental Illness Hurts the Family More than the Victim

  1. Excellent expression of the very real issue families face. They feel frustrated in their inability to help their family member. Families need support too.

  2. Carl Lindstrom

    A well-written article about real suffering. Of course, the patient is in a family where mental illness may occur a number of times. The patient is also the family member too. The suffering from the patient can be increased when we develop awareness about what our families are going through. The patient either becomes more disabled or more caring or both. Neither is not a good option.

  3. My sister is in a mental hospital now. My heart is broken.

  4. Melissa – I am so very sorry to hear that. These things are hard. I don’t know if it helps any, but I have been hospitalized for mental illness in the past and now have a pretty good life. I know others who can say the same. Things can get better though it often takes time. Renea

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