SPECIAL SERIES: Out of the shadow of silence, one woman now speaks her truth

The stigma of mental illness is often viewed as a condition worse than the disease itself.

Ashleigh Singleton

Ashleigh Singleton

“It’s your fault your mom died, you know,” he insisted. “If you hadn’t gotten into that fight with her, she’d probably be alive. Why don’t you just take that knife and cut your wrists?”

She ignored the words that sounded like the voice of a 50-year-old man talking into her ear from over her shoulder.

For two years, she didn’t tell a soul what she was hearing.

“It’s your fault. Those pills on the table, you should take the whole bottle.”

She was afraid she’d be locked up in a psych ward and that her friends would ditch her.

“Just jump out in front of that car, it’ll be quick.”

Frightened and fatigued, she finally sought help from her teacher at her White Rock high school.

She got help, but her friends fled nonetheless.

That was thHard to Help logoe hardest part, says Ashleigh Singleton, a well-spoken and lucid woman of 27, who still hears the voices she did 13 years ago.

But thanks to the right medication for schizophrenia, they’re nowhere near as loud – or as convincing. She no longer feels like killing herself.

As a heavy metal music-loving teenager, Singleton couldn’t finish high school for the teasing and isolation she underwent. The stigma was almost too much to bear.

She misses the dozen or so friends who wouldn’t socialize with her anymore after she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. But she says those have since been replaced by a host of other great friends.

Ashleigh’s story is one the public might never have heard, as most people with mental illness choose to keep their malady a secret rather than face discrimination.

But Ashleigh mustered the strength to damn the critics and begin speaking her truth anyway.

So she does, to anyone who will listen. And for the most part, she finds an understanding and compassionate audience.

“If I can speak to that one girl or boy (in pain), it’s worth it,” Ashleigh says.

“You don’t have to cut yourself. You don’t have to kill yourself.”

Most of all, she doesn’t want anyone to endure the years of torment that she did.

She’s hoping to take her story to Surrey schools soon to help people better understand that mental illness isn’t a death sentence.

A normal life awaits with the right treatment, Singleton says.

She credits her dad, Mike, for almost single-handedly bringing her to this place of openness.

“It it wasn’t for him, I’d be dead.”

For Mike Singleton, his daughter’s condition marked the second time he had to deal with the terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia.

The family secret

In 1979, Mike fell in love and married Maggie, despite warnings from friends that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Mike didn’t know anything about the illness, nor would it have made a bit of difference to him. He loved her fiercely.

Because of her condition, his “delicate angel” was prone to periodic fits of rage.

Mike could never be certain what he was walking into when he got home.

Sometimes, Maggie would hurl pots and pans at him for no apparent reason as he entered the door, or she’d call him at work screaming with anger.

The episodes would last about an hour or two, then she would dissolve into remorse and be back to her sweet self.

She never discussed her illness with Mike, or their children (Ashleigh and her brothers).

Mike, in turn, also kept the secret, not wanting to bring embarrassment upon her, himself, or the family.

Fear of public alienation silenced any discussion.

Mike Singleton“I was deathly afraid that people would find out that she’d call me at work screaming the way that she did at times,” Mike says. “I really didn’t have a clue about mental illness at the time.”

Maggie later developed multiple sclerosis, a progressive central nervous system disorder, and in 2000, she died.

Months later, at age 14, Ashleigh started hearing voices.

As soon as she was diagnosed, Mike decided he would take a completely different position.

“That’s when I decided there was no way I was going to hold it in anymore,” Mike said.

“I was going to talk to anybody and everybody about it and I was going to educate as many people as I could about what mental illness is.

“They’re not bad people, they’re just people with an illness,” he said.

This is the first time, however, that Mike (pictured above) is speaking about it to the media.

Maggie and the Singletons could be forgiven for their decades of silence – stigma surrounding mental disorders can be paralyzing.

Stigma: Worse than the disease

The stigma associated with mental illness can be subtle, such as being dismissed or ignored, or more obvious, such as being subjected to whispering, snickering, or even bullying. It is extremely pervasive, and those in the field say it affects everyone diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Those stricken by it say it creates a feeling of isolation, loneliness, shame and scorn.

It’s often described as being worse than the disease itself.

In its extreme, stigma against people with mental disorders can lead to discrimination or even violence.

Discrimination against the mentally ill also results in an inability to find housing, work, friends or a life-time mate.

Knowing those are possible outcomes, more than 60 per cent of adults with symptoms of mental illness won’t seek help. That number rises to 80 per cent for youth.

Brian Jacobson, coordinator for the ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) team, a mental health service in North Surrey, has seen what stigma does to people and how it impedes their reaching out for help.

“If you start hearing voices, and there’s nobody else around, you’re going to think yourself, ‘I’m crazy,’ so just imagine what other people are going to think,” Jacobson said.

Because early intervention is key to effective treatment, the real cost of stigma is the long-term health of the sufferer.

“I see patients come into hospital, and you can tell when someone’s psychotic and hearing voices,” Jacobson says. “And a lot of them will deny up, down and sideways that they’re hearing anything.

“It’s because they don’t want to be sick, they don’t want to have this illness, that everyone lumps you in with all the crazy, murdering schizophrenics out there, in the public’s view.”

Statistics back up this stark statement.

The 2008 National Report Card on Health Care in Canada indicated 42 per cent of people would reconsider socializing with a friend if it was discovered they had a mental illness.

The majority of Canadians would not hire a person with mental illness, nor would they consider a marital relationship with one.

While it’s improving slightly over time, stigma remains one of the most significant barriers for people seeking help for mental illness.

Public attitudes and beliefs, largely based on fear and misunderstanding, create stereotypes, which lead to prejudice and discrimination.

A poll of parents a few years ago found that 38 per cent wouldn’t tell anyone if they thought their child had a mental illness, so that child would unlikely get the medical help he or she needed.

In 2001, the World Health Organization declared stigma to be the “single most important barrier to overcome in the community.”

The country reaches for an answer

In Canada, the impediment is so serious that in 2008, a Senate committee called for a 10-year initiative to reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

It’s the most extensive study of its kind ever to take place in this country, and has gained world-wide attention.

Called “Opening Minds,” the initiative is a Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) program to change attitudes and behaviours of Canadians surrounding mental illness.

MHCC is tackling the issue on several fronts.

Because 70 per cent of people with mental illness had symptoms before the age of 18, one of the groups Opening Minds is examining is children between the ages of 12 and 17, the age group where it’s believed changes in viewpoints and discrimination can have the most effect.

Michael PietrusThe initiative is also looking into health care professionals, because many of stigmatizing viewpoints exist there as well, says Mike Kirby, chair of the MHCC at the launch of Opening Minds.

The other place to tackle stigma is in the media.

Studies found that about 45 per cent of news stories regarding people with mental illness linked the condition to violence and criminality.

Opening Minds Director Michael Pietrus (left) says if society can make some inroads with stigma, the lives of those with mental illness will improve substantially.

The sooner people reach out for help, he says, the better.

In an interview with The Leader, Pietrus says one of the most promising things found to combat stigma is exactly what Ashleigh Singleton is doing – braving the social push-back and going public.

“Where you have people who have successfully dealt with the mental illness… coming forward and telling their story, it gives other people hope,” Pietrus says. “(It shows), certainly in the vast majority of cases, you can get better.”

Resources for those who need help:

• Fraser Health Crisis Line

If you’re not sure who to call, start here.

604-951-8855

Toll free: 1-877-820-7444

 

• Early Psychosis Intervention

Fraser South area (Surrey, Delta, Langley, White Rock)

Intake line: 604-538-4278

 

• Drug and Alcohol Information and Referral Line, available 24 hours

604-660-9382

 

• Options Community Services

604-584-5811 or 604-596-4321

 

• Newton Resource Centre

#A205 – 13588 88 Ave.

604-596-2311

 

• Surrey Mental Health Office

13401 108 Ave.

604-953-4900

 

• Alcohol-Drug Education Service #204-14727 108 Ave.

Phone: 604-944-4155

info@ades.bc.ca

 

• Surrey Substance Use

#102-13670 94 Ave.

604-580-4950

 

• The Phoenix Society

13686 94A Ave.

604-583-7166, ext. 1

 

• Here to Help

Mental Health and Substance Use Support

#1200-1111 Melville St., Vancouver

310-6789 – no area code required

 

• BC Mental Health and Addiction Services

Riverview Hospital

2601 Lougheed Hwy.

604-524-7000

 

• Kids Help Line

1-800-668-6868

Read all the stories in the series so far

kdiakiw@surreyleader.com