Program empowers those touched by mental illness

For nearly five years, Sunshine coast resident Victoria Maxwell denied she had a mental illness, even though she had been hospitalized after running naked through Point Grey while experiencing psychosis.

There was the stigma and shame, but she was also worried that any medication doctors might prescribe would rob her of artistic energy.

The 47-year-old publ ic speaker and actress knew there was a history of mental illness in her family, but until she took part in a new provincially funded mental health genetic counselling service – the first of its kind in the world – she had no idea how many of her family members were affected, or what role that illness played in her own diagnosis.

Now she has gained a better understanding of the cause of her bi-polar disorder, and how much is caused by genetics versus how much has been triggered by social stressors. It has also given her a new sense of empowerment to take control of her illness by engaging in activities that bolster mental health, such as extra sleep and regular exercise.

The program, which has been running for just over a year, is led by Dr. Jehannine Austin, a professor of psychiatry and genetics at the University of B.C., and is held at B.C. Women’s Hospital. It is covered by the Medical Services Plan for people with psychiatric disorders and their families, and is funded through the B.C. Mental Health and Substance Use Services.

It is the first of its kind in the world, according to Austin, and has become a guide for countries such as the U.S., U.K., Germany, Australia and Romania, all of which are planning similar programs. Patients with a mental illness – such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, psychosis, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety – are referred by their family doctors to Austin’s clinic. They go through several counselling sessions with either Austin or Angela Inglis, also a certified genetic counsellor.

Of the more than 250 people counselled since the program began last year, many have been people with no psychiatric disorders.

“We’re seeing the adult children of parents with mental illness,” said Austin, noting they come to counselling to find out what their chances are of developing a mental illness, or whether their own children could face problems.

“A lot of them come in these doors with a sense of fatalism,” she said. “In the absence of a really coherent explanation, people will construct their own explanations. And those explanations for themselves can make them feel doomed. They think: ‘Just because my mother has schizophrenia, so will I.’ But these are not conditions that are entirely caused by genes.”

Before her first appointment, Maxwell gathered as much information from her aunt about her family history, and about any members who might have suffered from a mental illness.

“So when I talked with the counsellor, I realized there were things that I thought weren’t relevant to my illness, like the low-level alcoholism that is in my family. In a funny way, it was a relief because I realized that although there have been two or three people hospitalized, (mental illness) really is in different gradations throughout my whole family tree,” she said.