It’s a sunny Monday morning and Gary Fry has returned to his flat in central Queensland after a solo walk to the hot chip shops.
“I can get lonely,” he says.
Mr Fry is one of 100 Australians participating in the complex brain disorder schizophrenia†
It causes people to have an altered experience of reality, including delusions and hallucinations, which affect their thoughts, perceptions and behavior.
“It used to be terrible,” Mr Fry said of the mental illness.
“A lot of people always blame me for everything, it’s always the schizophrenia… [people] say you’re some kind of psychopath.”
Mr. Fry does not drink alcohol.
“Mixing one with the other, taking your pills and all that — you can get sick or die quite easily from it.”
The 67-year-old manages his symptoms with a monthly injection.
But it has been a difficult road for the man from central Queensland, who has spent most of his life moving between towns and villages to psychiatric wards, closed institutions, emergency shelters and the street.
“I was hit on the head in the hospital a long time ago.
†[I] lose a little concentration, sometimes take a difficult path.”
He finds joy in the little things, such as listening to the radio, flipping through magazines, and reading library books.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding between schizophrenia and people who don’t have schizophrenia.
“Do I think the community cares about me? It’s hard to say.
“I suppose some people care about me, but they have their own way, they have their own families, children, their own problems.”
What is citizen participation?
Garry Turnbull, a retired architect, has been Mr. Fry’s lawyer and nanny for three years.
“You never replace family, but it is very important for” [Gary] to feel needed and feel that people in the community care about him,” he said.
They were linked through Capricorn Citizen Advocacy (CCA) – a state-funded organization that connects advocates (everyday people) with protégés (people with cognitive or communication problems or those in vulnerable situations).
The match is made to improve the quality of life of the protégés and help with their basic needs.
“I’m calling – not to register if he needs anything, but just to create the space where he can talk to someone and know that someone is around to take care of him,” Mr Turnbull said.
Mr Turnbull said his behind the scenes role was for Mr Fry but clearly for the wider community.
“They always come in with a preconceived attitude that he is a lesser person,” Mr Turnbull said.
“With medics, doctors, they know that there is someone who is watching to see if he is getting the right attention.
“I have told them with police officers that this is a sensitive issue and that they should treat it as such – I am on the list as the first point of contact if something goes wrong.
†[But] I want him to represent himself.”
‘Falling through the cracks’
Mr. Turnbull is blunt about what his protege’s situation would be like if he didn’t have help.
“Probably in a very cramped facility or dead,” said Mr Turnbull.
Mr Turnbull advocates for about six people in the community and assists them with representation on health, legislative and government issues for free.
“They fell through the cracks,” he said.
†[The community should] be aware that there are people who are different and need time and space to live their own lives.”
The 72-year-old said many people lacked empathy and sensitivity and did not accept differences and diversity.
“Unfortunately, the government, the law and the order and everyone else don’t understand – they don’t take the attention or the time to understand it,” Mr Turnbull said.
Tony Stevenson, chief executive of the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia, said society’s reliance on myths and stereotypes often kept people from seeking help.
“We need to understand that schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses are just like any other health condition,” said Mr. Stevenson.
“We need to reach and support people.”
He said the perception of split personalities and inherent violence was false.
“That’s a very painful experience.”
Need more investment
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, people with schizophrenia have a one in 10 chance of dying by suicide, compared to 12.1 per 100,000 in the general population.
Mr. Stevenson said people with schizophrenia had a life expectancy of up to 19 years lower than the general population.
“Support is quite fragmented. We don’t have a mental health system that is easy to understand and navigate,” he said.
Mr Stevenson said more investment was needed to help people with severe mental illness live good lives and feel connected to their communities.
“For some, it will be very basic things, such as accessing affordable and stable housing, being comfortable being able to leave your home, shopping, cooking,” he said.
“For others, it will be about getting to work and supporting people to continue studying.”
Not perfect, but better
CCA coordinator Ewan Filmer met Mr. Fry five years ago when he lived at Ozenam House – a temporary home in Rockhampton.
“He has the NDIS, which he didn’t have when we first met him and that gives him a psychologist, a cleaner, support staff,” Mr. Filmer said.
“His accommodation is much better.
“It’s not what we think is perfect, but it’s better.”
Mr Fry is already thinking about moving west, but for now he is happy.
“I’ve found a place to stay,” he said.
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