We still speak about people with mental illness as if all they need to do to get better is try harder, using ourselves as a reference point and forgetting all the material and personal advantages we may have.
By Michelle Martin
Published August 08, 2011
The subject line of an email I sent to my younger sister back in March was somewhat adolescent:
You and I have to see this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! By which I meant the most recent cinematic adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Anticipating the latest movie version of that nineteenth century gothic pot-boiler (a kind of bodice-ripper in which no bodices are ripped) brought out the teenager in both of us. Well, not entirely - if it was brought out entirely we'd be arguing about something petty. It's funny how we get along so well now.
Of course we spent the duration of Jane Eyre sniggering in the Cineplex at all the erotic sublimation (really, that was the point of the outing). See Jane walk through long, dark corridors. Walk, Jane, walk! See Jane look at paintings of nudes by candlelight. Look, Jane, look! The fire in the fireplace is burning. See how it burns and burns!
No longer young teenagers, we followed the course of many mature readers. We lost our fascination with brooding would-be bigamist Edward Rochester, and sympathized more with our protagonist's first wife, Bertha Mason, than with the ingénue Jane.
As we grew up, we explored similar interests in different ways. I studied science and psychology and ended up writing on the side. My sister studied English literature at Mac and followed it up with a psychosocial rehabilitation diploma.
In our comfortable middle age, we've been known to curl up on the couch and sip sherry together while watching a BBC adaptation of some nineteenth century novel or other.
While we loved growing up in a place that was actually named Bronte, we both ended up settling in Hamilton, and we both ended up working in social services.
It's a career choice that's been a good fit for both of us, and though I've been at it longer than she has, I take her insights very seriously, because she lived her young adulthood as a consumer of mental health services, battling schizophrenia.
These days, with the right medicine, she is well, contented and successful in her chosen career. She's one of the thirty percent who make it.
Her journey to wellness must have seemed interminable to her at the time. In and out of psychiatric wards and group homes when my parents weren't able to keep her safe from what was at one point a persistent impulse to suicide, her grip on reality was tenuous some days. Delusions left her frightened and confused, and multiple attempts on her own life meant the frequent presence of an ambulance and/or police car in my parents' driveway.
Fortunately for my sister, Mom and Dad were never ones to care much about what the neighbours think, for all that they live in a solidly middle-class neighbourhood. Fortunately, too, she wasn't born in the 1800s, when so much less was understood about an illness like hers; although if she had been, she likely would not have been locked in the tower of a gloomy mansion, as Bertha Mason was for her mental illness in Jane Eyre:
He lifted the hangings from the wall, uncovering the second door: this, too, he opened. In a room without a window, there burnt a fire guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain. Grace Poole bent over the fire, apparently cooking something in a saucepan. In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards.
Bronte didn't know, or chose to ignore for the purpose of her plot, that even at the time of writing there were clinicians who understood the importance of humane treatment, and who provided as much freedom as possible under the circumstances for those at the mercy of a disease of the mind.
By the 1840s, when Bronte's novel was published, the laws of the day were already placing less emphasis on confinement and expressing more concern about restoring those with mental illness back to health.
Her novel may have been prescient in some ways, though. It did manage to anticipate some of the disability clichés regularly used by screenwriters. It's because of clichés like these and stereotypes about schizophrenia in particular that my sister is quite open about her own history (indeed, her story is recounted here with her permission).
And she's quite open about the fact that she owes a great deal of her ultimate success to the love and care of her family and friends - a natural circle of support that made sure she got help when she needed it, that gave her a place to live and financial assistance while she struggled to re-earn a spot in the working world.
All of these factors are predictors of successful treatment and important to lasting recovery. The family members who appear in the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario film Fear/Less are also an eloquent testimony to the role that loving family support plays on the road to recovery.
Think, for a minute, what would happen to a person with no family contacts (perhaps a single, middle-aged person, with no siblings, whose parents have died, with no extended family in the province) experiencing the onset of a serious mental illness, and whose fair-weather friends run out of patience. That person would find him- or herself living as much of a nightmare as our fictional Bertha Mason, imprisoned in a dark and gloomy mansion, alone and friendless.
It's not surprising that some need more agency assistance than others, or worse, that some still fall through a social safety net that was meant to catch everyone. Yet we still speak about people with mental illnesses as if all they need to do to get better is try harder (see disability movie cliché number seven), using ourselves as a reference point and forgetting all of the material and personal advantages we may have, compared to someone who lives in a shelter.
We might not even pay enough attention to those in our immediate social circle to know if any of them are struggling, let alone care about the difficulties of those we pass on the street. And if we do notice the illnesses of strangers, we probably complain about having to ride the bus with them. But they're just trying to survive, get through the day and get to where they need to go. We become part of the problem, part of the impediment to their effective treatment:
It is human nature to fear what we don't understand. As such, mental illness is feared by many people and, unfortunately, still carries a stigma (a stigma is defined as a mark or sign of disgrace). Because of this stigma, many people hesitate to get help for a mental health problem for fear of being looked down upon. It is unfortunate that this happens because effective treatment exists for almost all mental illnesses. Worse, the stigma experienced by people with a mental illness can be more destructive than the illness itself.
-- Understanding Mental Illness, Canadian Mental Health Association.
But let's get back to Jane Eyre. Here's a book club guideline question for you: In Chapter 36, we read that, as Thornfield Manor burned with a fire she ignited, Bertha Mason jumped to her death after years of being confined in solitude while suffering from some form of mental illness. Her story could not have ended any other way. Discuss.