Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Adding trauma while combatting stigma

Kris Ulland recently wrote at Borderline Families about her feelings of apprehension when invited to attend a conference, the venue which was directly opposite the treatment facility her daughter had once attended. Many of us feel the same way. We do not like to be even in the vicinity of the psychiatric care facilities that our relatives attended. These days I only get mildly stressed when I pass the outpatient facility that Chris attended for two years. It's hard to avoid because it's on a well-travelled route within walking distance of our home.

Kris brings up a little discussed aspect of mental health care. It is traumatizing for the patients and families to revisit the "scene of the crime." I assume that mental health care is aware of this and tries to stage events away from the hospital or clinic when at all possible. I attended one such event as a service to an older woman friend whose nephew had been released years ago from the US marines after his schizophrenia diagnosis.  The military would not reveal to the family what had happened to him during his time in the marines. His aunt is still grieving and bewildered.

The event was sponsored by a local family support group for schizophrenia and was held in a meeting hall unconnected to the hospital. The guest speaker was none other than Dr. Rx, an eminent psychopharmacologist and overall head of Chris's treatment program. There he was, still wearing the same navy blazer and not looking a day older than when I had last seen him four years earlier. I slunk to our seats well in the back of the room and kept my head down, not wanting to make eye contact. This was already becoming a traumatizing experience.

If I recall correctly, the purpose of the meeting was to "end the stigma" surrounding schizophrenia. So, what did we watch? A French Canadian documentary entitled "Schizo," if you can believe it. It was all the dreary stuff associated with schizophrenia, camera slightly out of focus, sad music, a feeling of impending doom. One of the psychiatrists interviewed in the film had a long grey beard. He  looked far crazier than his patients. The mother of Marc Lépine, the young man who massacred fourteen female engineering students at the University of Montreal in 1989, was interviewed, thus reinforcing schizophrenia with mass murder. All very sad, a downer really and what was I doing there? Oh, yes, to support my friend.

After watching a film about stigma that was stigmatizing, questions were taken from the floor by Dr. Rx and his assistant. A tall, well dressed man who appeared to be in his fifties stood up to ask a question. It was apparent by the rather enigmatic way he posed his question that he was a one time consumer of mental health services. Without my remembering the specifics, there was a challenge imbedded in his question to the doctors. Dr. Rx and his assistant, remember, they were there to stop the stigma, ignored him. They looked at each other when the question was posed, and appeared rather embarrassed that a consumer of their services had challenged them, even obliquely. The man sat down after getting nowhere with the two onstage. He tried again later, and got the same result. (The definition of insanity?)

Now, if I were a psychiatrist and that were me on stage, I would have welcomed an intervention from someone who had been there. (Remember, Dr. Rx was there to combat the stigma.) I would have tried a lot harder to bridge the gap. Dr. Rx and his assistant came across to me as wanting to retain their authority and overly afraid of exposure.

I was glad when it was finally over. Never again.


  1. I often find that those who talk the most and the loudest about "fighting/ending the stigma" also are those who, at the end of the day, discriminate the most.

  2. Why was this very interesting event planned in a venue right across the street from the "preeminent" treatment facility for the "treatment resistant patient" if the hospital was not involved in some way? I asked this question to the organizers, to Robert Whitaker, who was speaking, and finally to the public at large. I have received no answer as to whether or not Austen Riggs was involved in the event.

    If the Red Lion Inn was a centrally located, I might have written it off to a convenient location and lamented the fact that I could NEVER attend something in that setting. But, the Red Lion Inn is hard to get to. I know; I was forced to use their rooms when I dropped my daughter off and visited. It is over an hour from any airport. Stockbridge is a quiet New England village.

    We protect ourselves as best we can. Like you said, Rossa - never again.

  3. Yes, I have had so many of these types of experiences--it is like a wound that is healing, getting the scab picked off over and over. It is so sad that this is probably the norm, because of how ingrained the idea of the professional having the knowledge and expertise also means they are the boss so to speak. In any case, it is in "relationship with" that I have benefited most, in any type of interaction--That this is the case should be no surprise to anyone; yet it seems unwelcome news to some, on both sides of this.


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