Hollywood looks at mental illness

    The film the Soloist opens today. Mental health advocates are glad the movie, based on a Steve Lopez book, is drawing attention to mental illness and homelessness. They hope audiences take away the right lessons from the film.

    The film the Soloist opens today. Mental health advocates are glad the movie, based on a Steve Lopez book, is drawing attention to mental illness and homelessness. They hope audiences take away the right lessons from the film.
    (Photo: Flickr/scripsi_scriptum)

    Listen:

    [audio:090424MSSCHIZO.mp3]

    Web extra: Loretta Ferry is the CEO of the Consumer Satisfaction Team in Philadelphia. She is a mental health advocate. Her son Bernard, 45, has schizophrenia. Listen to her story:

    [audio:090424msLoretta.mp3]

     

    Intrigued by the talent of a homeless man playing a battered violin on LA’s Skid Row, journalist Steve Lopez set out to tell the man’s story:

    The Soloist is far from a typical “triumph of the human spirit” tale. it’s an introduction to the complicated and often heart-breaking world of serious mental illness.

    About one percent of people are affected by schizophrenia, onset usually comes in adolescence or early adulthood – seemingly out of nowhere. Dr. Larry Real, Medical Director of the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment says the disorder is especially challenging:

    Real: many of the patients, particularly in the early stages of illness, do not perceive that there is anything wrong with them. What’s wrong with them is that the people around them are making such a big deal. What’s wrong with them is that the people around them don’t believe that the FBI is actually tapping their phone.

    Philadelphia Loretta Ferry says her son Bernard was a good kid, a good student – but around the age of seventeen, he became withdrawn:

    Ferry:
    I’d find him crying in his room, I’d ask him what was wrong and he’d say nothing, and I said well, if you can’t talk to me you can talk to a priest, a doctor, and he said – ‘nobody can help me.’

    Bernard’s gloomy prediction held true for many years. Despite his family’s fervent efforts, he drifted in and out of hospitals, but didn’t get a diagnosis until much later. His mother Loretta, who is a mental health advocate today, remembers these years as emotionally exhausting:

    Ferry: I spent the first ten years of his illness waiting for the shoe to drop, and to be honest I never knew if he was going to kill himself or somebody else, my son got very angry with me, there were times I’d drive in the car and I would go to wipe my nose off and he’d go ‘who are you signaling?’

    Such paranoia and fearfulness make schizophrenia sufferers vulnerable to becoming homeless says Dr. Larry Real.

    Real: many of them reject what we would consider as better for them because they don’t want to take medications, medications haven’t either helped – and everywhere they go they are compelled to take medicines.

    Since Pennsylvania state hospitals closed in the 1980s, housing for people with serious mental illness has been a big issue locally, says Angelo Sgro of Philadelphia’s Bethesda Project – which just lost some of its city funding

    Sgro: what we need in Philadelphia and what we lost when we lost long-term psychiatric care is a permanent roof over someone’s head, and a way of taking care of their most basic human needs, you can’t do that without a roof over someone’s head.

    Dr. Arthur Evans, director of the city’s Office of Behavioral Health Services says that his agency does help people with mental illness lead meaningful lives:

    Evans: Many people can work, many people can have very positive relationships, people can be independent and live independently and part of our job is to help people with those kinds of activities as much as it is to help manage their symptoms.

    Loretta Ferry believes movies like A Beautiful Mind and the Soloist bring awareness, but the brilliant personalities portrayed let viewers forget that many people with mental illness see their futures shattered:

    Ferry: they all had dreams and hopes – my son was a good kid, he wanted to be a lawyer, and he got ill, and he never got his dream.

    Bernard is 45 today, he takes a medication that works for him, and lives by himself. He is not working, but Loretta says he still likes to argue and make a point – something she calls “the lawyer in him.”

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