One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet all sorts of interesting people I’d likely never meet otherwise. Lyle Richardson, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and the central figure of our mental health series (running today through Wednesday), is one of those people. Over the course of several weeks, two lunches, several phone calls and dozens of emails, he told me seemingly everything about his life, answering every question I had without hesitation. It was fascinating to learn about what a psychotic episode is like — the intensity of the voices, the fact those voices belong to people he knows — and the complexities involved in moving forward. Here’s the first of four instalments of our series. I hope you’ll check out the rest.
Exactly what the small piece of plastic was he can’t now remember, but held under his shirt that day some 15 years ago, Lyle Richardson had convinced the staff at a downtown Vancouver electronics store it was a loaded gun.
“I went in and held the plastic under my shirt and asked for all the money,” he recalled. It was an early morning in mid-September and he can remember the warmth of the sun. “The manager said to give it to [me], so they gave me the $600 that was in the till and I walked out.”
At the time, his motivation for the robbery was clear: The voices wanted him to fast, and to do so, he would have to get out from under the watchful gaze of the guardians who prepared his meals. Cancun seemed an ideal place to fast; to get there, he would need money.
About a year earlier, the New Westminster native was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia (typically characterized by delusions, hallucinations and breaks with reality) and dramatic mood swings. The milder symptoms of his adolescence had progressed into full-blown psychosis – a detour in Mr. Richardson’s road to adulthood that took him through B.C.’s mental health system.
His illness also brought him full-circle within the province’s criminal justice system, from being a robbery suspect, face-down and handcuffed on the streets of downtown Vancouver, to a speaker at the Justice Institute of B.C., where all municipal police officers in B.C. are trained and – as of this year – learn how to interact with the mentally ill.
The province has taken steps to advance its mental health system, investing in new facilities and launching a 10-year plan focused on preventing problems and on early intervention. However, mental health advocates point to lengthy waiting lists, gaps in care, and the alarming number of police service calls that involve people with mental illnesses as proof much is still to be done. The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in B.C. has launched a campaign to make mental health an issue in next month’s provincial election.
A price tag can be put on how mental illness affects the economy – about $51-billion annually in health care and lost productivity in Canada, with about $6.6-billion of that in B.C. – but the emotional cost is incalculable and widespread. About one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness.
While only 1 per cent of Canadians will have schizophrenia, Mr. Richardson’s story shows the strong hold a mental illness can have – and the complexities involved in treating it.
Throughout high school, the symptoms “weren’t too dramatic,” Mr. Richardson recalls: “One day, I would be sleeping on the desk, and the next day, I would be on an emotional high, cracking jokes a mile a minute.” The graduating class at New Westminster Secondary elected him valedictorian because they knew he would make them laugh.
Next came a year at Simon Fraser University. Through an entrepreneurs club, Mr. Richardson landed a job as a junior executive assistant at a large venture capital firm, a position that afforded the young man free hockey tickets and occasional use of his boss’s Ferrari. On the surface, life was great, but Mr. Richardson began feeling withdrawn. When he was let go from the job, he didn’t mind.
The voices started when he was 23 or 24, familiar tones that were innocuous at first and even encouraging. One, for instance, told him to make a list of all the things he wanted to do. Mr. Richardson made that list, although he can’t remember if he ever accomplished those goals.
Even now, as a 39-year-old fully aware of his condition, it is impossible for Mr. Richardson to differentiate the hallucinatory from the real. The voices of his illness are as real as the voice of the barista who makes his coffee, the clerk who bags his groceries. They are, perhaps, even more real: “They kind of talk to my heart,” he said. “They affect me quite deeply.” So when the voice of a woman he quietly admired from afar told him to fast, he did. His weight dropped and he began acting out of character.
Continue reading at The Globe and Mail.