Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder can be very difficult illnesses, but with good medical intervention they can be dramatically improved. Often people with these illnesses are not able to work full time, but this is not the only measure of a happy or fulfilled life.
My psychiatrist, Dr. Phillip Long, recognized that just giving pills and monitoring the symptoms was not sufficient to meet the needs of his patients. He started to offer some modest social events. His organizational skills worked against the paranoia and confusion that so often came with these illnesses. He brought patients together for coffee and to report to each other on what was working for them. He encouraged the setting up of informal buddy systems. Often a call to a friend could help keep a problem from developing.
Dr. Long started a monthly movie night to help us get out and socialize. The group would decide which show they would like to see. Every other Sunday (in summer) there was a walk around a large local park. It took nearly two hours. At the end we went for a Chinese meal as an informal group.
Dr. Long then rented a school gym in the evening once a week for volleyball. We amended the rules slightly - no slams, unlimited volleys. It was great fun, lots of laughter. He gave me a small stipend to be there every Thursday to set up the net and bring the pop. When he arrived everything was ready to go. There 15-25 players every Thursday. Often at volleyball, Dr. Long would answer someone's question about their medication. Or he might suggest a visit to his office the next day. One evening I went out of the gym to pick up something from my car. I listened to the roar of laughter coming from the gym and thought many people with regular jobs and careers weren’t having as much fun as we were. Dr. Long’s wife often stopped by at half time to bring a birthday cake for a member. She would be accompanied by their very friendly family dog.
We tried soccer, setting up parking cones in local parks to the mark the goals. A blanket was spread out and often picnic snacks were brought; one member’s specialty was honey garlic sesame chicken wings. This game did not work quite as well as sometimes those trying to kick the ball would miss and hit a leg.
We started to participate in various functions that were planned in the community. In this way we didn't need spend any time organizing events, we just showed up. If there were several events to choose from the group would vote. Many times their choice was not the one that I had expected. Phone calls were made by Dr. Long’s receptionist advising and reminding members of events, and sometimes I called people on the event day.
There is an annual fun run and walk in our city which had 40,000 participants. Dr. Long registered our group so we each got a number and the event T-shirt. It was good to have that T-shirt. It could be worn in the following weeks to proudly show that we had participated. We also went to a run sponsored by a hospital in a nearby city.
Once every 1-2 months we would go out as a group to a popular restaurant. Dr. Long bought a 15 passenger van so we could go on trips further afield, for example, to snowshoeing on mountains further away. Sometimes we would go hiking in the mountains in the summer. A large group of members were taken out on Dr. Long’s boat to see the summer festival of fireworks display. There also were a couple of day sails for smaller groups in local waters. One summer Dr. Long and another psychiatrist, with their sons, took 10 of our group on a 5-day wilderness canoe trip (in the Bowron Lake Provincial Park).
There were some practical rules that Dr. Long put in place. No alcohol or drugs at our events; people had to be mentally well enough to participate in our activity. Our activities were only for patients in his practice. We tried letting people bring friends but often their friends weren't suitable for our activities.
Our group went on a number of international trips paid for by Dr. Long, and helped by financial contributions from our families. Our group went twice to San Francisco and Disneyland, then once to Los Vegas, an Alaskan cruise and even Hawaii. Dr. Long's wife accompanied our group on the trips to Alaska and Hawaii. The youngest members of our group on these trips were in their thirties. On the first trip, I asked everyone (there were 12) how long had it been since they were on a trip. The average for the group was 10 years. Dealing with unending illness, poverty and sad events makes recovery very hard. To go year after year with no holiday break does wear a person down.
When our group was first started, I invited everyone to my small apartment for a Christmas spaghetti dinner. At the last moment I had the idea to make up a trophy for a mental health professional who had made a special contribution. We gave it to Dr. Long who came to our event, even though he’d had a particularly difficult day with patients in crisis. This dinner started something. The next year it was at my parent’s home and then a community centre, followed by taking over a Chinese restaurant. Then we moved to a hotel and the best ballroom in the city. To keep costs low, we stayed with the spaghetti format and added several trophies - Mother or Father of Year; a nursing award; one for a person doing well with their illness; and for various people who had made a substantial contribution in the mental health field.
The Minister of Health spoke; media hosts presented; and we went from the original 15 in my apartment to over 700 at the hotel. The event was attended by patients, families, health care providers and members of non profit societies. Everyone dressed nicely and event provided an opportunity for families to go out together. Also health care professionals saw their patients when they were doing well. We helped start a choir to add to the evening and they went on to performing many concerts throughout the year. Singing certainly can be therapeutic. Our Christmas awards dinner carried on for 11 years and then a local mental health society carried on the tradition. The event continues to this day.
These recovery and social activity programs worked.
It gradually introduced us to social events and we were able to see that our thinking was improving. We could both participate and contribute in social situations. We needed practice to to learn the skills of social interaction, particularly after dealing with the isolation that often accompanies a mental health issue. Dr. Long had a way of helping us build up our self esteem. Then when we faced adversity, we selected the best path.
For the first 25 years of my care in the mental health system I was given an incorrect diagnosis and treatment. In that time I had approximately 20 hospitalizations. I then transferred to Dr. Long who corrected my diagnosis and treatment. After this correction, I have had only one very short hospitalization in the past 30 years. The vast majority of patients in Dr. Long's practice had no, or very little, hospital time. Just think of the of the cost savings to the system this represents.
Dr. Long is now retired, but I hope that others will continue to provide social activity programs similar to ours. I believe these social programs definitely improve the lives of those having Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder.Robert Winram