Family battles with mental illness

WHEN the phone rings at the home of one local family these days, it is enough to trigger anxiety in the household – such is the severity of the mental illness affecting the family’s mother and grandmother, who tends to relentlessly phone them in a “very disturbed” state.

While Australia marked World Mental Day with a range of activities this week, thousands of Latrobe Valley families, including Jenny’s (not her real name) Churchill family, faced the gruelling daily realities of living with mental illness amid chronically under-resourced support systems.

For Jenny, the burden of what she sees as deficient diagnostic criteria in Victoria’s Mental Health Act, a shortage of psychiatric care beds in the region and a lack of supported accommodation options for her mentally ill mother, is almost too much for her family to bear.

Jenny told The Express her mum’s severe personality disorder had steadily eroded her own family’s mental well-being.

“We have had to get caller ID here because we know when we pick up to my mother we are going to encounter someone so disturbed and we never know which version of her we are going to get,” she said.

“We are living with a siege mentality; we have message bank and we have to ensure we don’t listen to her messages,” Jenny said, adding the stress of tirelessly dealing with her own mum’s problems had caused her and her 21 year-old daughter to suffer panic disorders.

Jenny’s frustrations with the mental health care sector are many, not the least of which is “the standard view” applied by professionals to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) criteria which had no “category for personality disorders”.

“There is no treatment for this condition, only behavioural management, yet my Mum is so incredibly agitated, endlessly screams and is tormented beyond belief,” Jenny said.

“She gets tremendously angry and very frightened of what she thinks everyone else is doing to her.”

At the aged care facility where Jenny’s mum resides “she has barricaded herself into her room, called the police, thought she was being shot at and that the staff were persecuting her, refused all assistance and terrified other residents”.

Jenny said it was “alarming” to be told by a member of a local community psychiatric team it was “unfortunate that there were 100 of my mum in aged care hostels in the state at the moment” and that she could only be hospitalised “if she hurt someone”.

From Jenny’s perspective the dismantling of all of Victoria’s stand-alone psychiatric institutions by former State Premier Jeff Kennett meant “the responsibility now falls on hostels who might have to take on board someone with these sort of behavioural issues which blow up…and on families”.

“You now have personal carers with limited training required to perform the role of a psychiatric nurse,” she said.

Jenny said it was only after her mother threatened staff at her aged care hostel with a knife several weeks ago that she was finally hospitalised and treated with anti-psychotic medication.

“The nurses told me she then went from deranged to lovely,” she added.

“It was such a battle to have her needs recognised though, I think they were more interested in keeping her out of their limited system which, without a doubt, is a problem for them.

“The process (of eventual hospitalisation) involved two paramedics, two police officers and several hours… the drama of having to engage all of these services seems pretty pointless to me when we once had a psychiatric service and extensive system of psychiatric hospitals that were safe havens for these people.”

Jenny called for the formation of a service which would see psychiatric nurses attend homes, where required, “to see what can be done” for a person contending with mental illness.

“They have this (service) in Melbourne… that was the promise of the Kennett Government’s overhaul, that this would all become community-based.”

Jenny said her distress over the inadequacies of “the system” was widely shared and cited the example of friend whose adult son battled a debilitating drug addiction and mental illness which “saw him threatening to kill his mum; just totally deranged”.

The man did not fit the criteria for admission to hospital “because it was drug-related – yet this is frequently why people have drug issues, because they are mentally ill”, she said.

Jenny said staff at Latrobe Regional Hospital’s psychiatric ward were “fantastic” and used “a model focused on interactions with patients which are very interactive… there are no straightjackets and putting these people out of sight” .

She said she believed they were vastly under-resourced to meet the level of community need, forcing hostel staff to instead “have to engage with mentally ill people.”

“I think all that we have been, and are, going through is all because of this damn Mental Health Act which restricts people’s capacity to help my mother.”