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In The News

Age-old fear, leaving a broken mind
6th April 2006
By Stuart Rintoul
Publication: The Australian


Elizabeth Byrne has a simple hope for her daughter Emma. It is that after she has died, Emma will continue to live in "an environment that's safe and where she'll find some joy in her life".

Ms Byrne's fear - the fear of every ageing parent of a mentally ill child - lies in the unknown. What will happen after she has gone? What if her child with the poor broken mind is no longer safe, no longer cared for, no longer loved?

Emma, 38, started showing symptoms of schizophrenia when she was 17. She has lived away from home for periods of up to a year, sometimes in group homes run by agencies such as the Richmond Fellowship, but always returns, overwhelmed by anxiety, too sensitive and vulnerable for the world around her.

The Byrne family lives in the upmarket Melbourne suburb of Toorak. Elizabeth, 64, is a physiotherapist. Her husband, Don, is a gynaecologist. But mental illness has no regard for affluence, or station. "It doesn't mind where it strikes," Elizabeth says.

She sits fighting back tears as she talks about Emma's illness, the years of suspicion that something was not right, the eventual breakdown of Emma's mind, when she would find her "patting her face all the time to see if she was there". Then there was the diagnosis of "simple schizophrenia", which was not simple at all, but tore at the fabric of the family.

"She wants to be part of life but she can't get into it," Elizabeth says, choking the tears away. "It's like she's watching it go by, and she's a lovely human being ... So we keep trying."

Schizophrenia, Elizabeth says, is a frightening word, a "heavy word to put on someone ... an extra suitcase to walk with. The brokenness of the mind is hard for people to understand".

But she is an optimist. She believes the doors to understanding mental illness are opening, however gradually, and that yesterday's $1.8 billion funding commitment by John Howard offers some hope for the future, providing it hits the mark.

This was the great need of the ageing parents of children with mental illness, she said. "To have some hope, to know that there is something in place for them when we are not here".

They are hopes and fears common across Australian society.

In Sydney, Hilary Weisser welcomed the funding package but said she also believed money should be spent establishing specialist hospitals for treating mentally ill people. She said the move against hospitalising mentally ill people had gone too far.

Mrs Weisser recalled an attempt to admit her son Mark to hospital more than two decades ago. Mark, who has schizophrenia, had spent most of the day trying to commit suicide in front of his parents by slicing at his throat with a sharp knife and attempting to jump off the balcony of their suburban home. When she finally talked her son into the car he threw himself out of the moving vehicle.

Mrs Weisser said the reaction of the doctor at the hospital was proof of the many problems with the system.

"He wouldn't admit Mark. After a long discussion he finally conceded. (Mark) then made another two serious suicide attempts - one by trying to hang himself with his pyjama cord and another by throwing himself into the harbour. This was all within a week of this doctor saying Mark didn't need to be admitted to hospital," she said.

Mrs Weisser, who also has a daughter with schizophrenia, said the issue of what would happen to Mark once she died weighed heavily on her mind.

"That's the number one problem. You wouldn't leave him in the house alone for longer than a day, he'd have every stray dog in the area living here along with all the local homeless people."

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