Hello good readers. I will most likely make a full, regular blog tomorrow evening, I just wanted to give you all a chance to have a look at a video made of an interview I was in on the 6th of April, 2022. Click the link here: https://youtu.be/J9ocWcunFg0 and I hope you enjoy, even if you just want to see how silly my voice sounds and what my un-tanned, bald talking head looks like. 🙂
I wanted to talk today about what you can do when you see someone experiencing psychosis. If a person is in psychosis, often they may be talking to themselves or shouting while walking down the street. I have noticed in my experience that they are almost always alone. There are times when you can help and times when you need to do what you can from a distance. One time, ages ago, I was riding a late-night bus not long after being released from the hospital. A young man got on the bus and he looked to be in extreme distress. I overheard him asking the bus driver about a place he could go to pray and I thought this seemed strange. It didn’t take me long to realize that this young man was in the same shoes I was in not that long ago.
I talked to him, gave him directions to some places to get help and tried to explain to him that he may be seeing and hearing strange things, but that they weren’t real. At the time, I thought I was doing him some huge favour, but when I look back I see a lot of mistakes I made.
One of the things I think I should have done was to stay with this guy and keep giving him reassurances about what was going on until I found help for him. That was a long time ago and a lot has changed. One of the key things that has changed is that, in Canada and in some parts of the US, Police have developed a way of responding to this type of thing. What some jurisdictions do now is send only mental health workers, and others will send both a police officer and a mental health worker. Unfortunately here in Western Canada, most smaller communities don’t have the benefit of a large police force or a large budget to respond in this way. Many communities are served by RCMP or Quebec or Ontario Provincial Police. Resources can be stretched so thin that only one constable at a time may be on call.
What is tragic is the number of deaths that occur when police respond to mental health calls, more so in the US than Canada, due possibly to the greater risks police face responding to calls. In the US, from what I understand, a police officer has to keep tight control on the people they are called to deal with and mental illness is something that often resists this type of authority. When you add in the greater risk of violence, it is easy to see why police feel forced to take down the person in question. Not that I condone this, I am just trying to make sense of why these things happen.
The large number of deaths and other negative outcomes of mental health calls has caused a lot of people to raise their voice about defunding the police and simply having different types of crisis response teams, most notably a mental health crisis response team.
It often seems when I go anywhere, especially around this time of the month, there are people who have severe mental illnesses in a lot of public places. It is my hope that anyone reading this will arm themselves with a little knowledge I have to share. The first thing that should be done before you leave your house again is that you should look up your local mental health crisis response agency (sorry, I don’t have the room here to list even the Canadian ones) and program that number on your phone. In Edmonton, as in other major cities, there is something called “The Hope Van” this is a converted ambulance funded by a local shelter that responds to people in crisis. Usually they focus on people who need to warm up or get a ride to a local shelter or are experiencing substance use problems like overdosing. We also have a mental health crisis response team that will intervene for just about anyone who is having a mental health issue. When I was last in the psychiatric hospital, this team actually staked out my apartment, called my parents and followed me until they could intervene on my behalf and get me the treatment I desperately needed. If you are ever on a bus and someone is having a crisis, or downtown or any such place and you recognize some of the signs of severe psychosis, call these people and give them a description of the person and a location. If for any reason you feel they are a danger to themselves or others, call 911. If you think you can help them, talk to them slowly and carefully, repeat yourself when needed, try to get them away from noise and distractions. By all means, if they smoke, let them smoke (though it is bad for you in the long run, nicotine is known to affect some of the same neurotransmitters that psychiatric medication does). It can also be important to ask them what they want to do. You may be able to get them to go to a hospital. Although it is hard to reason with a person’s delusions or hallucinations, or even paranoia, you may be able to logically convince them that things will end up a great deal better for them if they consent to go to a hospital.
There are some sad things to consider. One of them is that you may see people on the streets who are clearly struggling and even the paramedics and police don’t want to help them. This can be where calling something like the “Hope Van” I mentioned can come in handy. It is also sad to consider that some people you see who are mentally ill and struggling are on drugs or so traumatized by life events that they can’t be helped. This doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t try and help them. In a case like this, if I am able, I will try and get them some food (rather than give money that may go to drugs).
The other sad thing to consider is another reason why some feel police departments should be defunded. This is where homeless people or ‘nuisance’ mentally ill homeless people get fined or charged by police for things they have little control over, like public urination or possession of drugs they are so addicted to that they will literally die if they don’t get a hit. These fines pile up and turn into warrants for that person’s arrest, and then all of a sudden we have a local jail taking the place of a psychiatric hospital.
I wish I had better answers. Helping a stranger who is unstable is not always easy. What is important though is that people who have a mental illness or are family members of those who have a mental illness, ALONG with people who want to help change things like stigma, homelessness and untreated mental illness, need to educate themselves on the facts. This could be as simple as reading this blog, or as complicated as people in the US contacting the National Institute of Mental Health to learn more about how they can help, and people in Canada contacting the Canadian Mental Health Association or the Schizophrenia Society. A great way to start is to try and locate a class called “Mental Health First Aid”. Volunteering is another way you can help and begin to better understand people with illnesses and finally, many of these places need your dollars. More to come, thanks for subscribing!
Hello Dear Readers! Before I get into today’s topic I wanted everyone, especially those of you who get this blog emailed to you, to know that they can download a free copy of my latest book in PDF format by visiting my website www.edmontonwriter.com and clicking on the photo of London’s Tower Bridge. I also want to thank you for taking note of the date and the Zoom link for my upcoming in-person readings online. Details in case you missed them at the below address:
So, I wanted to talk a little bit about self-confidence. I feel it is a critical topic for people with mental health issues. Lack of self-confidence can lead to isolation, loneliness, putting off career and life goals and generally leave you in a much poorer state than you began. One of the ways self-confidence can be destroyed is through depression. Some years ago, I was put on Prozac and I found it helped with my self-confidence and made me able to do more, but there was still a long ways to go.
Prozac laid a foundation for me to do more, but if I isolated myself (I was not working for a long period of my recovery) I found that my social skills would rapidly decline. I would finally go out say for groceries, and I had a hard time looking people in the eye, I had to stumble and stutter through my sentences, and I only felt a sense of comfort when I was back alone in my apartment.
Right off the top, it should be apparent that if you let depression go untreated, and isolate on top of it, a tragic thing can happen. You can waste a large chunk of your life. There were about three years that went by for me where I accomplished little. Even when I did have a job it bothered me that I wasn’t helping anyone but myself, I felt bad that my family wasn’t around me and one paycheque I made the disastrous mistake of going out drinking and spending a whole paycheque on something that I shouldn’t do with medication.
Fortunately, over the years, I managed to stop drinking, and with prozac, my depression wasn’t as bad. Part of what I feel I owe my sobriety to was going to AA meetings as often as I possibly could, but after I got through a year I stopped going. Even though I had made some great friends there, I found that all too often the people in the meetings were a bad influence and that talking all the time about drinking wasn’t helping any of my other problems. I felt a lot better when I stopped going, but there was something I missed–the advantages–and there are many–of public speaking.
Fortunately, I got involved with The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta. They had me doing all kinds of public speaking and I also had a chance to set up support groups and wellness classes. A friend got me started on teaching writing and I haven’t looked back. I can proudly say that I now work in the same hospital where I was once a certified patient and the doctor who treated me very poorly sees me do it on a regular basis. 🙂
Finding a way to do public speaking isn’t easy. Public speaking isn’t easy. But it can be important to push your limits a little, and also to motivate yourself a little by taking classes or joining support groups. Even joining a library book club can help you to exercise your social muscles and make friends, and there is also opportunities in most communities to join the board of non-profits. I sat on the board of my community newspaper.
Now, I have a number of hobbies. I love retro video gaming. Photography gives me a chance to exercise my creative muscles and I love to write. So a lot of the things that I do help me socially. Teaching, giving talks about mental health–and this blog even! But that isn’t necessarily what I want my readers to do. What I want them to do is to ask themselves who they really are deep down, what moves them, what they are truly good at. I knew a young man who was struggling–it was a very unfortunate case, his mother was murdered and he had a mental illness. A kind neighbour decided to help him out and gave him a piano that fit in his room at the group home he lived in and when he played, not only would he give joy to the other people in the group home, he felt so much more fulfilled and was able to do so much more.
Again, I will talk about being in a group home. I was in one for nearly 15 years. I didn’t have a huge social circle, but I had the time and space I needed to do some serious healing, and then I started with taking classes in writing for free through my local library, and before I knew it I was on my own and able to partially support myself with my work. Being in the group home gave me friends who were there all the time, who I could talk to or ignore as I wished. There are very few ways to seem strange or be kicked out of a group home meant for people with mental illnesses. It was so great because they had good food, they taught me a lot about cooking and they often had outings to play pool or indoor soccer and they were really supportive. The only real shame is that so few group homes exist like that, but if you make the best of one, any group home can be a great way to transition to living on your own. I am so fortunate that the same agency that owned the group home had a spot in a subsidized apartment. Just as a side note, no matter what housing situation you are in, I strongly suggest you make an application for a subsidized apartment, even if the only ones you know of are a ways away. Most of these places have a waiting list, and if they are set up for people with mental health issues, they may include other supportive services. The group home I am in has an office and they help and support tenants, they have gatherings when the weather is good outside, and when the pandemic subsides (cross your fingers!) they will have coffee and snacks and indoor gatherings.
Just to go on a little further, I wanted to talk about the benefits of having a shower each day and keeping up with your laundry and general hygiene. This is not just so you don’t smell, it rejuvenates a person, gets them up and out of bed and primes them for the day. I also have to say that when your body and clothes are clean your self-confidence goes up, and when that goes up your depression goes down and you are more able to take social risks and make friends with others. Often what I do is have a shower at a nearby pool. If you like to swim or work out or play badminton or other sports, most communities have a YMCA or a city facility where you can get a reduced rate if you are low-income. This can be very beneficial. Another thing I wanted to mention is that I often have a lot of trouble sleeping and I have found that if I take a hot hot bath before bed, then rinse myself off with the shower head, I drift off to sleep so easily and wake up feeling energized.
Another aspect of self-confidence can depend on your medication. It is tragic that many people don’t pursue a partnership romantic relationship with someone because their hands shake or they are unable to perform sexually because of medications. Talk to your doctor about these things, but don’t just stop taking the pills you believe prevent you from those experiences. I don’t really know if I am in any way qualified to talk about relationships as I only have had one girlfriend in my life, but in a way that is a positive thing. I am still friends with this person who I met 30 years ago and it is so important to have someone you can talk to about anything at any time and who will support you unconditionally. A few years back I was in the hospital with severe psychosis and this person called the hospital and said she was my sister–the hospital was only putting through family members–and we talked for a long time. That was the most memorable part of being in the hospital.
Well, good readers–I thank you for staying around this long and reading all this. Maybe I should talk a little more about relationships in coming blogs. I just want to leave you with two things. First, please download and read and share my book “Alert and Oriented x3” I made it for all of you, and please come to my virtual public reading made possible by The Writer’s Union of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts. More information here: https://bmcnews.org/story/leif-gregersen-to-host-two-online-readings
click below for more information. Please note that the times mentioned are MST
Please note! Due to a scheduling problem, my second online public reading will be moved back. Check back here for details after Friday, May 6th
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I don’t know exactly why, but when I think of mental illness, pictures like the above one often come to mind. Sometimes I really envy birds, I have spent a lot of time watching them. As a boy, I don’t know if I was that obsessed with birds, but I certainly loved flying and I started from a young age. I was 12 when I first sat in the cockpit of a glider and I later went on to attend commercial pilot school for a while. It just seems sometimes that birds are so free and happy. They just have relatively simple brains and they constantly display incredible amounts of skill and grace as they cleave the air.
As far as psychosis goes, from what I am understanding, it most often comes on gradually. It starts in something called the prodromal phase where a milder mental illness exists and develops into psychosis. For me, it was both anxiety and depression. Some of this could have had to do with the abuse I was getting at home and at school, but my mom did suffer from severe depression, to the point of needing shock treatments. One of the biggest parts of the early phases of my mental illness was a feeling of not being worthy of happiness added to a severe case of anxiety that made it impossible for me to look people in the eye or talk to anyone without blushing. One of the worst parts of this was that I was very slow to learn how to relate to the opposite sex and never even had a girlfriend until I was 20 something.
At a certain point in my life, I think I was starting to get a handle on the anxiety, and I hadn’t had any severe depression for a while. I didn’t notice it, but I was starting to show signs of both bipolar and schizophrenia. Later as a formal patient in a psychiatric hospital, I recall two very esteemed doctors arguing as to whether I had bipolar or schizophrenia. Funny enough, I had both.
What having those two illnesses meant early on was that I had extreme highs and lows and later developed psychosis, which I will explain in a moment. As far as my bipolar went though, I have a recollection of being able to induce a manic or high phase of my illness by drinking alcohol. I was invited to one party at a friend’s house once and was laughing a little too loud, making a few too many jokes and displaying too much energy for anyone’s liking. One of the things I recall about the times when I didn’t have any friends and thus didn’t do any drinking, was that I thought drinking was the only true joy in my life. It was also a social lubricant and if I had a few drinks, I was much more likely to approach a woman to talk or ask her to dance or even start necking with her.
One of the things about Air Cadets was that, possibly because of what the real military was like, there was a huge drinking culture. I recall having a phase of social development where I went from wallflower to life of the party in a few short months, then after I quit cadets losing all of my chances to interact with and relate to women.
To go past this for a little while, I should talk about my psychosis. It is a funny thing to have and a difficult thing to explain. Basically, psychosis is when a person becomes out of touch with reality. In my own case, and I am sure in many from experience, psychosis starts out with delusions. These are thoughts, ideas and beliefs that kind of appear seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they can take the form of a running commentary of what the person is doing. My false thoughts didn’t appear to be someone talking to me, everything was from inside my head. The next aspect of psychosis is hallucinations. These are sensory inputs (touch, taste, smell, hearing–they can come in the form of any of the five senses) that are false. Often in my case, my hallucinations backed up what my delusions were telling me. I remember spending a great deal of time once when I was in the psych hospital sitting and listening to the air conditioner. It made a sound like a drum roll and inside my head a dialogue was telling me that I was about to be awarded a medal for bravery, all I had to do was walk out of the TV room and claim it. Sometimes this would go on for hours, I would even sometimes go and look if anything was there.
Another time, I was on the psych ward and experiencing false ideas and sensory input and a group of student nurses came onto the ward. One of them kept telling me, “Your Limo is outside.” I am pretty sure she really said this, not because I really had a Limo, but because she understood a lot about psychosis and wanted to see how much she could mess with me. I found it actually very common to experience this sort of cruelty from staff members.
So we have delusions and hallucinations. The next part is a feeling of paranoia. Certainly not everyone who has schizophrenia experiences all of these or even has all the same symptoms. Even when I was taking my medication though, I sometimes felt like others wanted to harm me. This made it very hard to attend school, go to parties, even have a job or a social life.
The next part of psychosis (and I should mention there are a lot of illnesses that can possibly include psychosis, though schizophrenia with 1 in 100 people having it is one of the more common ones) is having a general susceptibility to the false ideas you are receiving. One of the interesting things about symptoms like this is the fact that some ideas that people with schizophrenia get are shared with a great deal of other people with schizophrenia. One is a spy agency planting a computer in your brain to track you and spy on you. Some people with schizophrenia will walk around with tin foil on their heads in public so they don’t transmit radio waves. What I remember is experiencing those false ideas and thoughts, and having hallucinations and tendency to believe them and thinking the most preposterous things. I desperately wanted to make sense of why the CIA wanted me dead and that a super model wanted me to steal a car I saw that supposedly had a million dollars in the trunk (thankfully I didn’t do any of the more extreme things) I made a lot of logical conclusions and reasoned things out and quite often the only explanations that made sense were ideas like aliens were communicating with me or such.
Psychosis sucks. It hurts those who experience it and it puts their family and friends over the brink of never wanting to talk to the sick person again, but it shouldn’t. It isn’t a choice people make, and the goal should be to get the person treatment, not to just get rid of them. When I look back at times when I had psychosis, I am amazed that my doctors were able to bring me back from the brink. I don’t necessarily like all the things I went through in the hospital, but it may have been the only place I could get the help I needed. I will never forget spending five months on the locked ward being thrown into solitary time and time again, weeks, months on end. I honestly feel it exacerbated my psychological health problems, which I believe to be PTSD. But now, 20 years later, my life is on track again. One of the worst things about mental illness is that not a lot of people know enough to help someone they know who is going through depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Seriously. Things. Need. To. Change.