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At several different times in my life, I have worked with the elderly. Twice I have worked in nursing homes and once I worked in a full-service retirement community (independent living, skilled living, and nursing home). One of the things I heard from staff in all of those places was the difference it made in care if family members visited and were involved. It seems that if the family is present in people’s lives while they are receiving care and treatment, then the care they receive will be more personal, more attentive and just overall better. It is hard to say, why exactly this scenario exists, but it does seem to exist.

I think the same is true for people with a severe mental illness both inside and outside of institutions. When I have spent time in a psych ward, I have always had family visit, and for the most part, I have been treated fairly well (I have a few disturbing stories, but not many). Outside of psych wards, though, I always bring my husband with me to various doctors appointments, and I think it makes a huge difference.

I went to the emergency room twice in 2017, and the doctors and nurses all knew I had schizophrenia. I always tell doctors (dentists, too) that I have schizophrenia when they are treating me. I tell them this because I am terrified of medical professionals and I want them to show me some level of patience and compassion. The stigma involved in a diagnosis of schizophrenia is real, though and many medical professionals have their own biases toward the illness.

One doctor in the E.R. asked me if I take my medications. “Religiously,” I answered. He said, “Good because most of the people I see with schizophrenia don’t.” I can’t blame the E.R. doctors in Southern California for being a little hesitant about people with a severe mental illness because they are on the front lines of medical care for the homeless (many of who are mentally ill and are without treatment).

I went to the cancer center yesterday to have my diagnostic mammogram (I won’t write the whole ordeal of this again, but I will say in the past year, I have had three mammograms, several ultrasounds, two biopsies, and an MRI). I had a fourteen-centimeter mass in my right breast. I am happy to report that the mass has completely disappeared from view on the mammogram and the last test I have to have (if I get the all clear) is an MRI in February. Anyway, the doctor who sees me at the cancer center came out and asked about my husband, and told me to tell him hello. She remembers that I always bring my husband to my appointments and the first time I saw her and told her I have schizophrenia, she allowed my husband in the room for all my tests.

The doctors at the cancer center and all of the doctors that I have to see are so kind and patient with me, and it makes a huge difference in how I respond and feel about medical treatment.

I wish everyone with a severe mental illness could have an advocate to go to the doctor with them. Not everyone can express how uncomfortable and frightening visiting doctors can be. Even drawing blood which is common for those of us on antipsychotics can be frightening to some people.  We all need someone on our side and on our team, and my experience tells me that having someone in our corner makes a huge difference in how we are treated and the type of care we receive.