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A Portrait of Schizophrenia: From Daughter to Dad

01/19/2014 05:25 EST | Updated 03/20/2014 05:59 EDT

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but Amanda Tetrault found more than that in a series of photos the 36-year-old Montreal photographer took of her dad, Phil, a talented and intelligent man who has suffered from schizophrenia since he was 21.

Tetrault's parents met as students at McGill University. During Amanda's childhood, it became clear that her dad was becoming more and more disturbed: He tried to commit suicide, he heard voices, and he became extremely delusional and disruptive. Her mom eventually decided it would be best for him not to know where they lived, but both she and Amanda wanted to meet with him weekly -- which they still do.

From the age of about 18, says Tetrault, her camera went everywhere with her. She would take photos of her dad when they met at a neighborhood cafe. "It was a way for me to deal with what was going on with him. Taking pictures was a form of therapy and it helped me to understand things."

Phil bounced from the street to jail to institutions. "For many years he didn't believe he was sick, was untreated and had no insight into his illness. He would only get treated if he did something to get himself arrested and then move through the justice system to a psychiatric ward. That was the cycle I saw throughout my childhood."

Today, her dad takes medication, and tells her that the voices he used to hear feel like they're a room away rather than shouting directly into his ear. Tetrault hopes that by revealing her story, she can help to increase the awareness and understanding around this particular form of mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a medical illness that involves the brain and relates to some of the brain's neurotransmitters that are involved in communication, says Dr. Ruth Baruch, medical director of the Community Mental Health Program at Toronto's East General Hospital. It's her view that awareness of schizophrenia has increased among health professionals and caregivers, but not so much among the public. She blames it on stigma: "Unfortunately, what we tend to notice are the frightening, negative stories relating to schizophrenia. It's the violent episodes that get the most attention."

Yet this is one of the greatest misunderstandings about the illness, she says: "People with schizophrenia are generally not violent. If they are, it is usually towards themselves. They are generally not violent and do not hurt people. In my many decades as a psychiatrist, I have never felt threatened and I have dealt with some very ill patients."

In Dr. Baruch's view, a prompt diagnosis, effective treatment (including long-acting injectibles), adherence to medication, and psycho-social interventions can improve quality of life, sometimes dramatically. She says it's important for all of us to learn more about this form of mental illness. One good place to start is www.schizophrenia24x7.ca, an informative website that can raise awareness and help to erase the stigma surrounding the disease; it also offers a digital diary for people living with schizophrenia and their families to record their thoughts, medical appointments, and response to medication. At www.schizophrenia.ca, a comprehensive website, everything from early warning signs to treatment and research is addressed.

Dr. Baruch says she understands how Tetrault's photo works have helped in her healing over the years. She also sees that patients who are ill often are attracted to various forms of art as self-expression: "When someone is psychotic and not able to communicate their feelings, sometimes drawing a portrait or painting really illustrates what they are feeling about the world. When their psychosis has resolved, their art takes on a whole different form in terms of color and subject matter."

Phil Tetrault has used poetry, writing and art as his own therapies over the years. Art is a consistent part of his life today, says his daughter. As for the art that helped her heal, Tetrault has now published her photos in Phil & Me, a book available through www.amandatetrault.com.

"Dealing with a family member or with yourself around this illness is so difficult and complicated," she says, adding that she can understand the fear people sometimes have when they meet or interact with someone with the illness. "The stigma that surrounds the illness is very heavy for families to handle. And the shame of talking about the illness can be so paralyzing. But shame is not something we need to feel about having a family member with schizophrenia."

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