Rising above mental health issues

I was recently at the Sarawak General Hospital (SGH) anti-rabies unit where I made an interesting discovery – I managed to trace a long-lost schoolmate to the 7th Mile Sentosa Hospital.

While waiting to be jabbed, I chatted with a nurse about her experience and she told me she served at Sentosa – hospital for the mentally disabled – before being seconded to the SGH infectious diseases unit.

And when I asked her if she knew my friend, she said, “Oh, we all know him. He is doing very well and is popular with the inmates.”

I had been trying to contact my friend for some time after he dropped out of sight several years ago. We were both sportsmen while studying for the Higher School Certificate examinations in the late 1960s. He was a good swimmer and middle distance runner while I was not only one of the top athletes of St Thomas’ school but also the sports captain.

When I left Sarawak to join New Straits Times (NST) in Kuala Lumpur as a sportswriter in the early 70s, we lost touch. But we were reunited in the mid-80s when I returned to Kuching to helm NST.

By now I was an accomplished state premier cup rugby player and soon I learnt my friend, trying to follow in my footsteps, had taken up rugby and joined the Kuching Rugby Football Club (KRFC).

A talented cartoonist, my friend sold his drawings to make a living before eventually becoming a reporter with a local newspaper.

A loner, he did not have many friends but he looked up to me because I was like an older brother even though I often reprimanded him condescendingly if he spoke incoherently.

Soon I learnt why — he had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia — a serious mental disorder which involves a range of problems with thinking (cognition), behaviour or emotions, delusions, hallucinations or disorganised speech.

For example, schizo individuals can be paranoid and think that they are being deliberately harassed if certain innocent comments are made. However, some have exceptional ability and

ambition.

Often victims have disorganised thinking and answers to questions may be partially or completely unrelated. I knew this well because I have dealt with other victims with a similar problem in the past.

My stepmother Datuk Mary Ritchie, who has been with the Penang Mental Health Association for the past 40 years, said to nip the problem in the bud, parents must be able to identify the problem at an early stage.

She said society should embrace victims instead of labelling them as misfits.

Looking back, I discovered that my friend was also an avid writer and wanted to be an acclaimed journalist. He drew closer to me after I won the Shell Kenyalang Gold award in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

One day he asked me, “James … do you think I could win an award like yours because I am short of cash?”

I told him tongue-in-cheek: “Why not? Just choose a subject matter which could impact society, read up about the subject matter, do research and quote the respective authorities on the subject matter.”

“Above all you must have an organised mind and not a cluttered one,” I joked and he laughed.

I thought that after that advice, he would have changed his mind but I was wrong. A year later my friend entered the awards and won a gold medal and RM1,500.

So he proved me wrong, that despite the mental disadvantage, he had beaten the odds.

Looking back, I remember that one day during breakfast my friend told me he had heard God’s voice and advised me to go to church as he did religiously. And he practised what he preached every Sunday.

Sadly, a few years later there was a relapse because he refused to take his medicine. I felt sorry for him because he was being caged up.

But people will say that he is in a safe environment under the protection of the Sentosa staff rather than be free to roam the streets in this unpredictable world of crooks and bullies.

He reminded me of a story that I wrote about an Orang Ulu inmate who was incarcerated at Sentosa for more than 40 years before being given his release papers.

But after spending a lifetime in the institution, he refused to leave because the institution had become his “home”.

Studies show that people with schizophrenia require lifelong treatment but early treatment may help get symptoms under control before serious complications develop.

Recent studies say that individuals can live a normal life – if treated and managed over the long-term, most people can live normal, productive, and fulfilling lives.

A recent study showed that 30 percent of patients can manage without antipsychotic medicine after 10 years of the disease, without falling back into psychosis.

So what are the chances that my friend may one day be released? I think the chances are slim because he is 68 and comfortable where he is.

But if it does happen, I promise to write his book!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.

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