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Sarah Cannon's 15-year old daughter, Emily was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was five. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Sarah Cannon's 15-year old daughter, Emily was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was five. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)


When mental illness becomes part of the family Add to ...

The collateral damage extended to her younger daughter, Amy, who has grown up feeling like a second banana because the family's life seemed to revolve around Emily's care and treatment. As a result, Ms. Cannon explains, “there is resentment of sorts,” but at the same time, Amy is fiercely defensive of her sister.

Ms. Klein says the illness that affected her son also reverberated across the family, with David's two older siblings coping quite differently. His brother took refuge in humour, while David's sister was tender with him, no matter how difficult he was.

They never resented David, but were at times angry and frustrated with their parents. “They wanted us to ‘fix it,' ” Ms. Klein says. “That was our job.”

Still, instead of tearing the family apart, the illness brought everyone together. “Now that the kids are all adults,” she adds, “thankfully they are very close to, and supportive of, one another.”

But less-resilient families conceal what they are going through, Ms. Cannon says, and “silence, of course, just perpetuates the stigma and leads to isolation.”

Vowing to avoid that trap, she turned to other parents for support, and is now executive director of an advocacy group, Parents for Children's Mental Health.

Emily, now 15 and in high school, is doing better – as is Ms. Klein's son. His illness kept him out of high school, but David is about to graduate from Carleton University with a psychology degree. And his mother, like Sarah Cannon, remains active with a peer-support group, Parents Lifeline of Eastern Ontario.

Parents, especially those still reeling from the news their child has a mental illness, must realize that treatment can make a difference, Ms. Klein says. “Everybody needs to know there is hope.”


If Phil Tétrault wants to see his daughter or his ex-wife, he has to call and arrange a meeting. He doesn't know where they live, and hasn't for decades. “It’s a very clear boundary,” daughter Amanda explains. “When Phil is sick, he’s so lost in the illness that he can’t behave rationally.”

Mr. Tétrault was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1975. Since then, he has lived mostly on the streets of Montreal, with stints in prison, psychiatric hospitals and rooming houses. He has a severe form of the disease that doesn’t respond well to treatment, especially when he tries to treat it himself, with alcohol.

As a result, Amanda's childhood was difficult. Her father would show up occasionally, often in a psychotic state, and trash the house or otherwise be impossible to live with.

When she was 12, her mother decided to move, with no forwarding address. It sounds cruel, but was necessary, she says. “You still love the person ... but schizophrenia is an awful disease. You have to put barriers up.”

Many families find it too hard to maintain contact with their severely mentally ill loved ones, but Ms. Tétrault says that “it’s not all or nothing with Phil. We’ve found a middle ground.”

Jane Duval, executive director of the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, says family members will bend over backward to stay in touch, but rules are often required.

Her son, Chris, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 17, and first admitted to hospital at 19. “He had some violent incidents ... he broke down the door and threatened me,” Ms. Duval says, but only when off his medication.

To her, violence is “a treatment issue ... a symptom of inadequate care.” So, “I made it clear to my son that, if he didn't take his meds, he couldn't live with us, he couldn't set foot in the house.”

When he broke this rule, there were consequences. “You can't imagine how hard it is for a mother to turn her son away at the door, to call 911. You follow the ambulance to the hospital and you're crying all the way.”

Ms. Duval likens her approach to what she would do if a family member had a heart attack. “He was sick. He needed treatment.”

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