July 16, 2012

Snake oil salesmen have been with us for a long time. Sometimes they merely steal money and hope from the vulnerable. Sometimes they do real harm, or even worse.

Many people believe Steve Jobs might still be alive if he had treated his cancer aggressively with surgery immediately, rather than trying alternative treatments for the first nine months. He said he resisted surgery because he didn't want his body violated. What he didn't comprehend is that his body was already being violated, by the cancer.

Those with mental illnesses are also being violated by their illnesses. It attacks our sanity, our sense of self, our hopes and dreams. One of the most insidious symptoms of many serious mental illnesses is that it says we aren't really ill or that our prescribed medications will harm us.

I give speeches every week to students, professionals, the general public, and to those who deal with schizophrenia, as I do. I try to educate, to fight stigma, and to open opportunities for those with serious mental illnesses.

At almost every speech, I am asked if schizophrenia makes a person violent. Statistics show us that those with schizophrenia are much more likely to be the victims of crime than to become violent themselves.

However, when one of us does act violently, it is usually in such a dramatic way that it makes the front page of the paper. Almost without exception, those actions are taken by someone who was not properly medicated. They may have never been properly diagnosed or may have stopped taking their medications.

Such was the case of a young man in B.C. who last November attacked his parents, killing his father and severely injuring his mother. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but at some point he and his parents decided to take him off his anti-psychotic medication in favour of an alternative treatment.

He was self-medicating with a multi-vitamin marketed as a treatment for serious mental illnesses. It was developed here in Alberta, and won a well-publicized case against Health Canada to be allowed to continue marketing.

I take vitamins myself, and find a combination of several help with my cognitive functioning and overall health. But I would never stop taking my prescribed medications in lieu of vitamins.


In my decades in the schizophrenia community I have learned that patients and their families are always looking for a cure. This illness crushes your spirit, and it alienates you from your friends and family and society. I've had friends seek miracle cures, faith healing, even exorcism in order to rid themselves of this horrific illness.

For all the public complaints about our health care system, had I been born in another place or time, I might well be chained to a tree, locked in a basement or even burned at the stake.

Instead, I received an appropriate diagnosis, have access to a psychiatrist and the most modern medication for my illness that is available, which I take gratefully. I'm not in a padded room, I'm not living on the street eating out of a dumpster, but I'm also not trying to run away from the reality of my illness.

I could pretend I'm not sick. I could hide in the closet and hope it will go away. Denial doesn't help anything in the long run, it just delays acceptance. With acceptance can come healing, not a cure, but a chance at a happy, healthy life.


I can understand trying alternative treatments in addition to regular medical care, or when traditional treatments are non-existent or no longer work. I remember a time when those diagnosed with AIDS would try any alternative treatment possible because there were no real treatments available.

In the case of the young man in Vancouver, his psychiatric treatment worked when he stayed on his medication. His cycling on and off his medication made his parents search for a different solution.

In this case, that search ended in tragedy. All sides in the current murder trial in B.C. agree that the young man was too sick to be held criminally liable for his actions. I'm asked repeatedly why I stay on my medication when so many others don't. I wish I had an answer.

(Austin Mardon received the Order of Canada for his health care advocacy and is the author of the recently published book, Thriving with Schizophrenia. He can be reached at aamardon@yahoo.ca.)