Schizophrenics share care tension at City Hall

Art has always been touted as a means of expression, so a group of Calgarians with schizophrenia and one University of Calgary professor decided to use art to share their experiences.

U of C communication and culture professor Dr. Barbara Schneider met with 30 people with schizophrenia to discuss the issues of service providers. With the data collected after 18 months, they put together Schizophrenia: Healing [our] Voices, Dilemmas or Care and Control, a documentary and graphic novel.

Schizophrenia is a mental illness that develops slowly. Symptoms include hallucinations, delusions and paranoia in more severe cases.

“The people who are affected by the problem being studied take part in the project as co-researchers,” explained Schneider. “Most people just had a really hard time getting their voices heard so this is the opportunity for them to engage in public discourse about mental health issues in general.”

One of the co-researchers, Michele Misurelli, moved roughly 30 times in her 45 years. A Schizophrenia Society of Alberta employee for the past eight years, she’s only recently found a safe home for her and her 15-year-old daughter.

“I lived in a basement suite where there were mice, mold, mushrooms growing out of the carpet wall,” said Misurelli. “It was a very dungeonous place. The mice scared me because there were 10 mice that I trapped and killed. I felt so dirty and at the bottom of the barrel, but that was all I could afford. It was $550 [per month].”

The City of Calgary counted 3,400 homeless May 2006, 53 per cent of which suffered from some form of mental illness.

Misurelli explained that many people living with mental illnesses are forced to have roommates addicted to alcohol or drugs in order to afford rent. Landlords often force residents out because of these roommates.

Misurelli is grateful that her family supported her and her child while she was between homes.

“Families are important because families are our stopgap before we hit the street,” she said. “They’re at retirement age, they’re on pension and to support another person they didn’t expect for their whole life. . .”

Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped is an Alberta program that subsidizes schizophrenics. AISH recipients get $1,088 a month, a $33 increase from 2007. Misurelli said this was not enough to live for those unable to work.

One of the goals of the project was to increase communication between schizophrenics and their care providers including the provincial and federal government. A resounding call for a more equal participation in housing, medical or financial programs came from the 30 participants.

“They’re constantly having to negotiate in their relationships with their service providers,” said Schneider. “They are told to take responsibility for their lives, but it’s a very narrow range of behaviours that count as taking responsibility. So the message they get is take responsibility, but do it our way.”

Recommendations in the graphic novel for housing providers include allowing privacy, mediating disputes with landlords, increasing independence and letting people keep their pets. Misurelli found her home after volunteering 300 hours for Habitat for Humanity.

“Right now I’m living in [Community] Lamda,” said another co-researcher Laurie Arney. “It really supports independent living through workers in the building, but in the time of need, when you’re having trouble, there’s extra support in place.”

There are only two of these buildings in Calgary. Participants were found through the Unsung Heroes Program, a peer support group for people with mental illnesses.

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