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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

HEALTH CONNECTION

Dispelling the myths of mental illness

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun


After five years of experience working as a street nurse who specializes in mental health, Krysia Tomsic has learned a lot about schizophrenia. She says up to 90% of the people she has worked with suffer from this biochemical brain disorder.

"Working in mental health has given me the chance to dispel the myths and the stereotypes. People think that if you have schizophrenia you must be crazy. But many people with this disease are high functioning. For others it's a daily struggle," she says.
"It's very rewarding to be able to listen to their problems and help," says mental health worker Krysia Tomsic.


This weekend, healthcare professionals and others will have a chance to learn more about schizophrenia by joining one of the 20 sponsored walks taking place across Ontario. The largest Walk of Hope will take place on Saturday, May 24 at Nathan Phillips Square.

The organizers hope to raise $200,000 worth of pledges in Ontario. Each walk will offer entertainment and information for people who want to know more about a disorder that affects 1% of the population -- about 300,000 Canadians.

"Most often it strikes people in their teens and early 20s," says Wendy Douglas, marketing and communications manager at the Schizophrenic Society of Ontario, "just as your kid is in the prime of life and looking toward the future."

The popular misconception is that people with schizophrenia have split personalities and are prone to violence. But according to the Schizophrenic Society of Canada Web site they're more likely to withdraw from society -- and inflict harm upon themselves.

The symptoms include disorganized thinking, delusions, hallucinations, and changes in emotions and behaviour. There is no known cure, but with medication and social support, some sufferers can return to a fairly normal way of life.

According to Krysia Tomsic, people with schizophrenia have a different perception of the world. They may, for instance, have a delusional belief that every time they turn on a computer, someone is monitoring them, and this prevents them from leading a normal life.

Those who do manage to keep the disease under control with the help of medication and other treatment, often find it a challenge to be accepted in society, which discriminates against those who have this often-misunderstood disorder.

"If someone is going for a job, even if they're talented and well-educated, often they'll be rejected if the employer knows they have schizophrenia, while someone with diabetes or a person recovering from cancer would get the job," Wendy Douglas explains.

Krysia Tomsic now works as a clinical consultant for mental health at Saint Elizabeth Health Care (www.saintelizabeth.com). This charitable organization employs nurses, social workers and others to treat patients in the community.

As a clinical consultant, her job is to help train other health-care workers to deal with the problems facing people with mental health problems. Suicide is one of the biggest dangers. One in 10 people with schizophrenia take their own lives.

One of the things patients with schizophrenia need most is a friend, and that's what many health-care workers provide.

"Sometimes the person who has the illness may shun their family because they don't want to be a burden to them. Or they may have delusions about them. For us, it's very rewarding to be able to listen to their problems and help," Krysia says.

(Susan Poizner (susan.poizner@sympatico.ca) is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)



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