The stigma of mental illness and violence, a personal account

My eyes are not standard-shaped, I’ve worn glasses since I started school. My optometrist referred to my eyes as egg-shaped but my mum insists that they are almond-shaped. I’ve got my fathers eyes and now I see that my almond eyes will become blood-shot and my eyelids will puff up and redden with age. He was attractive in the few photos that my mother kept of them after she left, but time and circumstance had worn him down; nights without a roof over his head, poor nutrition and health care.

He said “You didn’t want it to be me, did you?” I quickly denied it but he was right. I felt instantly ashamed that I had not wanted him to be the one, for those few minutes. I had seen him standing there at our prearranged rendezvous point, on the steps of the city post office. In that bustling place, he was the only person standing still as if waiting for someone but we hadn’t thought to describe each other and he did not look like my father so how could I know. I stood frozen to the spot, scanning the crowd wondering if my father would turn up, trying not to make eye-contact with the nervous unkempt stranger 5 metres to my left.

On the phone, my father had sounded very well-educated (as he is). The handwritten letter that he left in my mailbox revealed that his writing and grammar were beyond fault but he was shabbily dressed, a result of either his poverty and/or disinterest in appearance. At least he looked warm, I was glad he was not cold. I had come straight from my temporary locum job, which had brought me interstate to where my father lived. He commented on how much he liked my coat and how smart I looked (dressed in my work clothes).

He tried to explain his absence from my life but his explanations didn’t add up. My father had a long history of mental illness, of which he appeared to be in denial. He told me he thought the doctors weren’t telling him the truth about his health. Perhaps they didn’t know the full truth, perhaps it included autism (like me and my sons) but I did not know about autism back then.

He invited me to his one-roomed unit for dinner one evening, he had prepared a very hearty stew. He only had one set of utensils to eat with so he gave me the fork and he ate with the spoon. I tried to make conversation, I wanted to know what he thought about the world, I wanted to know if we had things in common but my conversation skills were very poor and hindered by unspoken truths.

Then, he suggested we go on a road trip together to Port Arthur as he had always wanted to go there. The only thing I knew about Port Arthur was that there had been a horrific and well-publicized massacre there several years earlier. The Port Arthur massacre was carried out by someone (I chose not to use his name because of the danger of affording murderers celebrity status) who was reported by the media (incorrectly, although I didn’t know it at the time) to have had Schizophrenia. I became very nervous about the idea. Why did he have to choose that place of all places?

Actually, I was even nervous just going to his place for dinner. I was aware for many years that my father had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia so I was very interested in finding out more about it when I was younger. I had read several books from libraries about the condition and remembered reading somewhere that people with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia could become violent to those closest to them.

Even though my family assured me that my father was never physically violent, he was essentially a stranger to me and fear was always very close to the surface for me; I couldn’t help feeling concerned for my safety. My fear was also fuelled by an unfair bias informed by popular culture against people with mental illness. I quote the following from the Editor’s summary of a very informative review of the literature (Fazel, 2009) which confirms that the assumption that Schizophrenia predisposes a person to committing violence is misleading:

‘These findings indicate that schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence but that the association is strongest in people with substance abuse and most of the excess risk of violence associated with schizophrenia and other psychoses is mediated by substance abuse. However, the increased risk in patients with comorbidity was similar to that in substance abuse without pyschosis. A potential implication of this finding is that violence reduction strategies that focus on preventing substance abuse among both the general population and among people with psychoses might be more successful than strategies that solely target people with mental illness.’

It is not mental illness but drugs and alcohol that predispose violence. My father did not appear to be to have drugs or alcohol in his life from what I could observe and no one ever mentioned drugs or alcohol as part of his history so my fears were completely unfounded.

In the article, Discussing evil: The problem of “Us” and “Them”, Soraya explains how we enable ourselves to feel more secure and safe by attributing violence to a certain type of person such as someone with a mental illness; those we refer to as “others”. We can then be safe in knowing that no-one we choose to associate with could do something like that and that if we could just cure or quarantine those “others” that present a threat to “us” then we have an easy solution to the problem. But this is firstly not the case and secondly just encourages stigma and violence towards people with a mental illness or other labels.

My father was probably aware that I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of going with him to Port Arthur (possibly my face went pale and conversation halted) even though I did not directly say no. I feel that this unspoken rejection and prejudice may have informed his ensuing behaviour.

The next time I tried to contact my father he did not answer his phone, I went to his unit and knocked on the door but he did not answer. Instinct made me think that he was home. I called his phone from the door and he answered and said he was too unwell to come to the door.

A couple of elderly women who lived in a unit downstairs had heard me knocking on his door. They asked me who I was and if they could help me. I explained my concerns and they gave me the number of his case worker who assisted all the residents.

The case worker informed me that he had a diagnosis of Paranoia and Severe Depression, there was no mention of Schizophrenia. She asked for my contact number but my locum job was almost over, I couldn’t see how I could support him from interstate and it seemed he didn’t want my support anyway. I offered my Godmother’s number instead (my aunt, his sister).

Fifteen years later, I had lost all contact with my father but my exploration of my past had reignited a desire to contact him again. I wanted to share with him that he had grandchildren, I wanted to share what I knew about autism and see if it could help him to come to terms with how he relates to the world (like it did for me).

I felt that if my father wanted support (which he might not) that I was in a position mentally and financially to help him. I wanted to try to connect with him again. This time I thought I could do better, this time I had better social skills, this time I had more life experience, this time I had more to offer him.

After many phone calls, I was given a likely address for him and I wrote him a letter. I had my husband edit out anything that might scare him off (too honest, too weird etc.) and I included photographs of my sons and I.

I have not heard from him, I’m not sure if I ever will but I feel a weight removed from my shoulders. It was also an unspoken apology for unspoken feelings and prejudice.

For more information on the myth of mental illness refer here and here.

For an interesting article on schizophrenia and identity refer here.


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