Monday, April 12, 2010

Spreading the word on mental illness

By Lori Kittelberg

Something I love about writing is the opportunity it gives me to learn more about things I feel strongly about and raise awareness of them. It's something I particularly enjoyed as a freelancer. Working in communications, these types of opportunities don't always present themselves in traditional ways, but they still happen now and then.

Before I left Douglas College, I volunteered to be an extra playing a patient in the Women's Chronic Unit at Riverview Hospital circa 1940-something for a reenactment scene being shot for a documentary called Bedlam. Above is a shot of me on set, shot by Mikki Herbold.

The film is a project by Heidi Currie, a criminology prof I met while working at Douglas, and filmmaker Lisa G (Lisa's the one with the camera). It's a continuation of their project Asylum. Heidi teaches a course on working with offenders with mental disorders.

I knew about Asylum as it had been part of a larger series of events at the college I had publicized last spring. Last fall, I posted a story on the employee blog that Heidi needed extras for her new project and figured, "Why not?"

The new documentary focuses on Kay, who took a job at Riverview during WWII at age 16 – she tells the story of her first day at work as Bedlam’s narrator.

The treatment of people with mental illness has improved markedly since then, when the patients at the Women's Chronic Unit were unmedicated and wards were understaffed. We wore drab tunics and grey wool socks and were essentially stripped of any identity we had outside of our characters' respective illnesses.

At one point, a nurse on set who had worked at Riverview years ago said we looked the part but were much too quiet. For a relatively short period of time, we were told to pump up the volume. For me, playing a depressive, this meant sobbing. Hard. I only had to do it for 10 minutes or so. I experienced postpartum depression a few years back and I simply thought of how alone I felt in order to pull what I needed to from my guts and do a good job. It made me sad to think that if I had been born in the wrong era, I could have been in a ward at Riverview, rather than feeling a heck of a lot better within a few months with the right medication and counselling. And it made me angry.

Provincial dollars for healthcare, including support and services for people with mental illness, have been decimated in BC. Well, redirected, says Heidi - there is limited access to mental health services until someone with ends up in the prison system. Then the province deems it important. Talk about too little, too late. Heidi also told me that there is very little documented history of Riverview so Bedlam will be an important educational piece on BC's mental health system.

Sadly, underfunding and poor access to mental health services isn't limited to BC or adults. Through a remarkable Twitter campaign sparked by TheNextMartha, I discovered No Points for Style, a blog by Adrienne Jones, whose son has bipolar disorder. Her story gave me the much-needed kick in the ass to put this entry together as the film shoot was in January. Not helping kids is just plain wrong and makes me much angrier than I think I can possibly express.

My thinking is the more people understand the history, they more they will see the danger in backtracking to having little government support for people with mental illness. I know it's a cliche, but hey, knowledge is power. And if I can play a small part in getting that knowledge out there by spending a Saturday playing a Riverview patient from back in the day, I'll gladly do it.