Johannesburg - Unfortunately, stigmas and misconceptions surrounding schizophrenia often prevent those in need of help from accessing the correct treatment or having any hope for their future.
In the early 1990’s the word “schizophrenia” was not something one heard of often. The first time Charlene Sunkel heard the word, it sounded like an irreversible curse, not that she knew at the time exactly what it meant or that it was at all explained to me.
The worst part of it was that “schizophrenia” was the word that described the devastating set of symptoms that gradually took over her life.
She had unexplained experiences involving auditory hallucinations that were frightening and critical, while intense paranoia had her believe that people close to her, along with authoritative figures, were out to harm her.
“I isolated myself and found it difficult to be among people, partly because I perceived them as a threat and partly because my mind was preoccupied with millions of thoughts and conversations in my head,” she said.
Sunkel eventually ended up in psychiatric hospitals for months at a time. For several years none of the prescribed medication made much of a difference. It was only after almost 10 years, that she got stabilized on one of the older generations of antipsychotics in combination with an antidepressant.
“Giving up is easy, getting up and moving on is hard – I had to intensively work on getting rid of the negativity in me and embracing the positive. Once I had built a structured life and obtained a positive mindset, I was ready to start my new journey – and got involved in the mental health field.”
On what her journey has taught her, Sunkel said having a severe mental disorder such as schizophrenia, contrary to some perceptions, does in no way mean life has ended - achieving success is possible.
According to her, some of the most common stigmas surrounding schizophrenia are that people with the illness are often perceived as being dangerous and more prone to commit crimes, while in fact, people with schizophrenia are more often victims of crime and human rights violations.
Other misperceptions are that affected individuals are not able to live independent lives, speak for themselves or contribute meaningfully to their community.
“People with schizophrenia often face debilitating effects of the stigma that prevents them from accessing life opportunities and even health care.”
On some of the causes and symptoms she found herself experiencing, she says it is difficult to pinpoint what triggered her condition, but trauma, stress and possibly a predisposition may have been factors.
Sunkel is still on antipsychotic and antidepressant medication. She has been on medication for the past 28 years and the side effects of the medication include: dry mouth (constantly thirsty), after taking the medication at night, she finds herself disoriented, she can't stand for long, and can't speak properly, as she drools.
"It’s important to stick to your medication", she says.
“I have extensively experimented with my medication previously - I stopped taking the medication and each time I experienced a relapse within three days to the extent where I am unable to function properly in day to day life. My conclusion was that I absolutely have to stay on the medication even though I feel great and function 100%.”
Sunkel further shared that she identifies a relapse as a way to cope with her diagnosis.
“My first warning signs of relapse usually start with avoiding people, not talking to anyone, and soon other symptoms will surface. I have very supportive friends who are able to identify a relapse emerging even when I don't - usually my psychiatrist will temporarily increase the dosage of my medication and usually within a week or more I am all good to go again.”
For the ordinary person on the streets, the most effective way to learn about mental health conditions is to hear stories of recovery from those who experienced life with such a condition, says Sunkel.
“Don't be afraid to talk to people with a mental health condition and ask them about their experiences - people will be surprised to find that the person is no different from them. When accessing information online, make sure the website or source is credible. The World Health Organization website is one such credible source,” she said.