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Living with schizophrenia: 'Every person has a story'

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eileen Johnson, Executive director of Mental Health America of Putnam County, and Consumer Advisory Board members Robert Harbison and Teresa Batto go over plans for a panel discussion about schizophrenia. Both Batto and Harbison have family members affected by the disorder. The panel will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31 at the Putnam County Museum. Banner Graphic/AMANDA JUNK
GREENCASTLE -- Schizophrenia is known in mental health circles as the "college disease" because it typically hits people around age 18 or 20, the age when several young adults are preparing to transition into university life.

For Teresa Batto's son, that move to college was compounded with paranoia and a history of seizures and handicaps he had already had to deal with since his childhood.

Due to his medical history, Batto's family was more prepared in some ways for the development of his schizophrenia, and her son's college was able to help with a diagnosis at its onset.

"But still, it's a very tragic change in the direction of his future," she said. "It's a very difficult thing to see your child with all your future hopes for him have to change."

Mental Health America of Putnam County (MHAPC) and The Consumer Advisory Board of Cummins Behavioral Health will sponsor an evening of information with a panel discussion on the mental disorder from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31 at the Putnam County Museum, 1105 N. Jackson St., Greencastle.

The program is free and open to the public, and speakers will include Dr. Stuart Mannon, Doctor of Psychiatry; Dr. Armen Sarkissian, Doctor of Psychology; and Batto and Harbison, both Consumer Advisory Board members.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "people with schizophrenia sometimes hear voices others don't hear, believe that others are broadcasting their thoughts to the world or become convinced that others are plotting to harm them."

It usually develops with increased hallucinations, delusions, thought and movement disorders, shortened attention span and a decreased ability to understand information in decision making.

Harbison's family was taken more off guard when it found out a loved one was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"All of us are faced unbeknownst," Bob Harbison said. "We all have such high hopes for our loved ones. We send them to school, send them to camp and groom them for their future, and suddenly the future is interrupted.

"It surprises people. It creeps up on you and then boom, it's on your lap, and you're out," he said. "You have to respond to that."

Batto's son, now 34, has since found part-time employment. While she said her family was fortunate in detecting the disease early on, it was still difficult for them to accept.

"This is a lifetime thing we will have to deal with, and he will have to deal with," she said. "That's the tragedy of it."

Harbison said the best way to live with the disease is to be pragmatic about it, seek professional help and let medical professionals do their job.

Schizophrenia is usually treated with a number of antipscychotic medications. Finding a medication to treat the disease normally takes about 12 years because the nature of schizophrenia is so individualized; Harbison said it took his family 13 years to find one that was a right fit.

"That's a long stretch of time," he said. "A lot can happen in 13 years."

Batto said her son has never been able to completely eliminate the voices in his head, but that medication makes it possible for him to live with them some of the time.

Harbison said researchers are also currently looking into the commonality of weight gain in patients who are taking medication to treat symptoms associated with schizophrenia as well as other mental side effects that come with the disease.

The likelihood of a schizophrenic also developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol can be both psychological and biological.

"What's happening is they're having all these voices coming into their head, and they've got to some way or the other figure out what is real and where to plug in," Batto said. "That's stressful."

Eileen Johnson, executive director of MHAPC, said there is a stigma involved with mental health -- one she works hard to dispel.

"We'd like for people to see past those limitations and look at what they've achieved," Johnson said.

Harbison said one of the most common misconceptions of schizophrenics is that it is a disease associated with criminals and multiple personalities.

"This should not be a hidden disease," Batto said. "It's like all other diseases: It has its symptoms. Once we understand the symptoms, we can live with it."

Harbison said the goal is for loved ones with schizophrenia to have as normal a life as possible.

"We look for independence for our loved ones, for them to live on their own and to be safe and secure," he said. "Everybody has their own story."

For more information about the program, contact the MHAPC office at 653-3310.

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