Rethink needed over a forgotten illness

ReThink Mental Health services'Claire Hoggart
ReThink Mental Health services'Claire Hoggart
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SCHIZOPHRENIA affects as many as 600,000 people in the UK and costs more money to treat than cancer, yet we know so little about it. Star reporter Rachael Clegg speaks to a Sheffield organisation that helps schizophrenia sufferers and their carers.

TO MOST of us, Eyre Street is nothing more than a big bus route and home to the Cheesegrater car park.

ReThink Mental Health services'Julie Bates and Claire Hoggart meet with colleagues

ReThink Mental Health services'Julie Bates and Claire Hoggart meet with colleagues

But to some, it’s home to a life-saving organisation, Rethink Mental Illness.

Rethink Mental Illness provides support for carers of mental illness sufferers, as well as housing support and advice. And James Barlow is at the centre of it all. He provides training and support for the family and friends of sufferers of illnesses such as schizophrenia.

“Illnesses such as schizophrenia can have a huge impact on the lives of carers. It can affect carers emotionally and financially - as many of them have to reduce their working hours in order to fit in their role as a carer.”

Caring for people with schizophrenia is made more difficult by the stigmatisation, lack of understanding and scant medical research on schizophrenia.

ReThink Mental Health services'Keiron Ellis Mental Health Recovery worker

ReThink Mental Health services'Keiron Ellis Mental Health Recovery worker

And because of this, to mark 100th anniversary of term ‘schizophrenia’ - which was coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler - Rethink Mental illness has launched an inquiry into the way in which we understand and treat schizophrenia.

The chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, Pail Jenkins, said: “In many ways schizophrenia is the forgotten illness. We still don’t know what causes it and we still don’t know what the most effective treatments are. It’s a devastating condition that affects hundreds of thousands of families across the country and in many cases is leading to people dying 20 years earlier than normal.”

To those living with the illness - whether a sufferer or carer - schizophrenia is a terrifying, alienating and isolating condition.

At least that’s what it’s like for one carer we’ll call Paul Frank, from Firth Park.

ReThink Mental Health services'James Barlow at work as a Carers Support Officer

ReThink Mental Health services'James Barlow at work as a Carers Support Officer

Paul cares for his elder brother, who has schizophrenia, who, before the illness set in, was a sociable character who enjoyed going out.

“We first noticed something was wrong when he wanted to stay indoors more, he started to withdraw and depression set in. This progressed to a deeper depression and his mood was very changeable. He began talking to himself and it was difficult for him to concentrate.”

His brother - who remains anonymous - was diagnosed and treated for depression. But after the treatment for depression proved to be ineffective, he was sent to another GP and diagnosed with schizophrenia. His treatment has been somewhat sporadic, as Paul explains.

“Some treatments are more effective than others and it’s confusing as different kinds are being used alongside anti-psychotic drugs. One of the side effects for my brother has been weight gain and this has impacted on other areas of his life as he can’t get out and about as much.”

“One of the things that tends to trigger my brother to feel worse is to talk about life in the past.

“He had so much potential, had studied overseas and there is a lot he could’ve achieved. It’s hard for him to think about things he’s missed out on because of his illness.”

Paul’s brother doesn’t get violent or aggressive, behaviours that tend to be associated with schizophrenia.

Rather, he chooses to isolate himself. As a carer, Paul cooks for him, takes him to the gym and takes him out shopping.

“It’s a 24/7 job. We have to just take each day as it comes.

“It’s very hard for us all and has had a huge impact on our lives. He is my older brother and is a role model for me and it’s hard to see him deteriorate. But we have stuck together and he’s been able to get by with our support. It’s our duty to look after him and with the help we get through his medication and via Rethink Mental Illness we’re still able to function.”

Paul feels society needs to have a greater understanding of schizophrenia and its sufferers.

“People suffering from schizophrenia are normal human beings with an illness - it’s not their fault. Just because you can’t see a mental illness it doesn’t mean it’s any less debilitating than physical illnesses.”

Paul said Sheffield’s Rethink Mental Illness staff had been a tremendous help.

“I’m one of their members and I attend events they hold, get to speak to other carers and share experiences. It’s nice to feel that I’m not alone and have the weight taken off my mind for while.

“They’re a great organisation for giving useful practical advice on everything from housing to benefits and I’m really grateful for their support.”

As many as one per cent of the population suffers from schizophrenia.

Visit www.rethink.org for information, call the national advice line for information and practical help on 0300 5000 927, or contact the Sheffield office about local services on 0114 2677660.

Paul Frank is not his real name