Family the strongest pillar in treating schizophrenia, say therapists

On the eve of World Schizophrenia Day, My Medical Mantra meets patients and medical practitioners, who reiterate the value of love in the healing process

Starting next month, Schizophrenia Awareness Association (SAA), Pune, will have a new office assistant, Shamali (name changed). What makes the 25-year-old special is that till recently she was undergoing treatment at SAA.

“Starting June 1, SAA will be my office. All this while, I’ve been spending time at the day care centre here. I look forward to the new phase of my life,” she said.

Shamali was detected with schizophrenia when she was in a 10th standard student of a government school at Hinganghat in Wardha district of Maharashtra. “There is a huge difference is what Shamali is today than what she was three years ago,” said Sarika Chantak, in-charge, SAA, adding, “With sustained medication, her condition can be improved to a point where she is much better and independent.”

Shamali’s road to recovery has been arduous. She used to live with her grandmother when she started showing of schizophrenia. Her family took recourse to many superstitious practices to ‘cure’ her ranging from black magic to animal sacrifice.

However, when her condition worsened, her parents consulted a doctor in Pune. “In Shamali’s case, treatment was sought only around five to six years after she started showing symptoms of schizophrenia,” Chantak said. SAA runs a day care centre for schizophrenia-affected people and conducts awareness workshops in Pune.

Delay in seeking help is often the reason why patients of schizophrenia suffer even more. A lot of times, they are disowned by their families, and they end up on streets. Nilima Bapat, secretary, SAA, said, “There are many like Shamali whose treatment is delayed. A lot of people do not realise that schizophrenia can be treated only through medication and counselling. In almost half the cases, we find that patients have gotten worse because of delayed medical intervention.”

Drawing and paintings made by schizophrenia patients at Yerwada Mental Hospital
Drawing and paintings made by schizophrenia patients at Yerwada Mental Hospital

In case of Shamali, the symptoms included auditory hallucination, muttering to herself, no expressions, fear of unknown people, lack of confidence to carry out day-to-day activities and no sense of personal hygiene. Often such symptoms are dismissed by families. The patients are either shunned or ‘helped’ by resorting to superstitious practices.

“While Shamali is getting there, she has recovered fully yet. She still shows signs of performance anxiety and delusion about rejection from family,” said Chantak, adding, “But the same girl who used to take an hour to go from one room to another three years ago, effortlessly works part-time at a beauty parlour now. She will soon join our organisation.”

Family the strongest pillar in treating schizophrenia, say therapists
Vocational therapy at Yerwada Mental Hospital

Occupational therapy, a vocational training programme, worked well for Shamali to. “She has had two relapses in three years, but she was able to overcome them because of occupation therapy. Medicines and therapies such as group therapy and cognitive behaviour therapy were also given to her,” informed Chantak.

Shamali continues to be sceptical about her family. “My family members get irritated at me. I do not like my mother,” she said with a faint smile, even when she expresses worry.

However, she has learnt to look ahead in life. “I will perform a dance for Schizophrenia Day (May 24) at our organisation. I’m constantly worried about my performance,” she said. “I love watching Bollywood songs and I love to dance,” she quickly added.

While Shamali’s family moved to Pune to support her treatment, not everyone is as lucky. Sitting on a bench, George, (name changed), continuously dangled his feet. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late 30’s. Now, 52, he lives in Yerwada Mental Hospital, Pune, since 1992.

Checking his home visit reports, officers of the hospital repeatedly mention lack of cooperation from his family. Vidya Suryavanshi, occupation therapist at the hospital, said, “When George was diagnosed with schizophrenia, his wife separated from him. He has a sister, who lives in Talegaon area of Pimpri Chinchwad. She would visit him earlier, but now there is resistance from her as well.”

George was a trained radio repairman and used to get many orders. “Please tell my sister to take me home. I won’t bother her now,” he pleaded. When asked about when he came here, he said, “In 1969.” His report mentioned that he can recollect only this year and he does not talk.

According to George’s medical history, since the last two decades he has been repeatedly relapsing. With no family support, he is trying to overcome his mental illness by going through different therapies daily at the hospital.

Madhumeeta Bahale, medical superintendent, said, “Around 1,000 patients in our hospital are suffering from schizophrenia. In the majority of cases, we face the problem of lack of cooperation by the family. These are the patients who need the most emotional support from families. Treatment becomes difficult without that.”