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She told me "Sharika, I think I am losing it..."

On World Mental Health Day, employment and discrimination law specialist, Sharika Parbin, discusses her personal experience of a friend with schizophrenia and how friends, families and employers all have a role to play in looking after each other through words and deeds.

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Sharika is an employment and discrimination solicitor with a particular interest in access to justice for all and tackling inequality, she tweets as @SharikaParbin
I want to tell you about Maria (the name is fictitious). She is someone I care about and she suffers from schizophrenia. I have known Maria for many years.

She is a lively, amusing and caring person. In her mid-20s she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Many people misunderstand schizophrenia, so often misrepresented in the media as split personality syndrome, a quite separate mental health condition.

Schizophrenia affects around 1% of the population. Symptoms include feeling suspicious or fearful, hearing quiet voices occasionally and finding it difficult to concentrate.

As the NHS Choices website makes clear, most people with schizophrenia make a recovery, although many will experience the occasional return of symptoms.

However, with support and treatment, sufferers are able to manage their condition so it doesn't have to have a large impact on their life.

Before her diagnosis, I remember Maria telling me one evening, "Sharika, I think I am losing it as I keep meeting someone but I don't know if it’s real" a sign of psychosis.

I responded by asking her what she meant by that. Maria then started to talk about something else entirely.

Her diagnosis for schizophrenia followed a few weeks after this conversation. She had a major breakdown and was hospitalised. I thought that people would be sympathetic to Maria’s situation.

Unfortunately, the reactions of some individuals to the more apparent symptoms of her mental ill health were frankly appalling.

People, including some who knew her well, referred to her as “crazy”, “weird”, “abnormal”, not being “marriage material”; the list goes on.

Maria was already feeling worthless and these words and phrases further exacerbated her sense of worthlessness. One of Maria’s sisters was furious and confronted a couple of individuals about their use of language and their response was no less thoughtless, “I didn’t think she would understand the significance of what I said”; “I didn’t think she would get upset”.

These comments probably stemmed from a lack of understanding of mental health issues and from a lack of empathy shown to those affected by them.

Sometimes unless you know of someone on a personal level who faces these challenges, it can be far too easy just to be dismissive or indeed embarrassed when confronted by behaviour that you find unusual or uncomfortable.

However, I found it difficult to digest the reference to Maria as “abnormal”. What is “normal”? I think I would struggle to provide an adequate answer.

Luckily, Maria's family and friends supported her while she was in hospital and then when she returned home - regularly visiting her, taking her shopping, etc. Her family had the task of telling her employer what had happened and they were naturally worried about how the employer might react.

Maria's sister decided to bite the bullet and told her employer about the breakdown and hospitalisation. She later told me of her great sense of relief when she had done this and particularly so as the employer reacted in a positive and sympathetic manner.

Her employer was keen to understand her condition and opened a dialogue with Maria and her family to explore what reasonable adjustments might be required for her to remain in employment.

However, they recognised that, even with adjustments, an early return to work was unlikely as she needed some time for her treatment to have the desired effect and for her condition to stabilise.

Maria’s employer, thankfully, seemed to have been fully aware of the issues and of the legal duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities under the Equality Act 2010. Had they not done so, the likely outcome would have been far less positive for Maria.

The employer, in their approach to Maria's situation, had demonstrated a duty of care and a concern for her health and well-being – this was very important.

I know from the work that I do as an employment and discrimination lawyer that unfortunately not all employers have a positive approach to dealing with disability related matters in the workplace.

Maria eventually felt that she needed some time out from the world of employment.

After this period she decided to move on and seek a new job. This was not an easy decision to make as she was concerned about what a new employer and future colleagues would think if she told them what she had been through.

Despite these major worries, she disclosed her condition to her new employer at the very outset and thankfully the response she received was positive and supportive.

Maria explained how schizophrenia affected her and she identified, for her employer, the potential signs and triggers as well as agreed actions to be taken if those signs became apparent in the workplace.

Unfortunately, Maria experienced a relapse after being fine for several years and is currently not in work. However it is to be hoped that when she is ready to return to the workplace, any future employer will be willing to support her career and future development.

There are of course lots of people who have, or know of someone who has, faced the same challenges as Maria.

In my view it’s important that we share our own personal experiences so that we can cultivate a supportive network for people who are suffering from mental health issues, challenge discrimination and even educate employers.

For those who are interested in expanding their knowledge of the range of mental health issues that people may face, you can find plenty of information on MIND’s website.

For those who have not come across MIND previously, it is an organisation that provides “advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.”

MIND campaigns to “improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding” and is committed to not giving up “until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets support and respect.”

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