Age at interview: 61
Background: Elizabeth is 61 years old, divorced and lives alone in a regional city. She has twin sons, aged 32. A semi-retired teacher, Elizabeth identifies as Anglo-Australian.
Elizabeth has cared for her son since his initial voluntary admission to a private clinic at the age of 19. Since he was 16, Elizabeth's son has received multiple diagnoses with his current diagnosis being schizoaffective disorder with bipolar traits. He has been hospitalised involuntarily once, in a public hospital.
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More about Elizabeth
When Elizabeth's son was first diagnosed at the age of 19 with a 'mental illness', Elizabeth said she remembers thinking that caring for him would be her 'life's work'.
Elizabeth is 61 years old and lives alone in a regional city. A semi-retired teacher, she has twin sons, aged 32. When one of Elizabeth's sons was about 14, he developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Elizabeth described how there was no psychiatrist based in her regional town, which meant her son initially could only access a psychiatric nurse. Six months later, Elizabeth's son saw a visiting psychiatrist who advised he would have 'some trouble down the track' if he did not receive more treatment to fix the 'source' of his OCD. But Elizabeth said her son refused to continue treatment.
When Elizabeth's son was 19 and in his second year at university, she said he started sleeping a lot and 'lost a lot of weight'. At that time, she said he deliberately 'broke his own toe to avoid going to work', which prompted her to seek professional help for him. Elizabeth got a referral to a psychiatrist associated with a private clinic in the city where her son was voluntarily admitted. She recalled her son had a 'psychotic break' that developed into mania after, she said, medical staff at the clinic started him on an antidepressant. Consequently, he was admitted as a compulsory patient to a mental health unit in a public hospital for about a month. Before he was discharged, the unit's treating team tentatively diagnosed him as 'bipolar with psychosis attached'.
Elizabeth's son was discharged into the care of the local Crisis Assessment and Treatment (CAT) team's psychiatric nurse because her regional town did not have a psychiatrist. She said she felt 'scared' initially about how to look after him. Elizabeth got a referral to the original psychiatrist attached to the private clinic, and he treated her son over the next ten years. During that time her son received his current diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder with bipolar traits. Elizabeth said her son was 'happy' for her to talk to his psychiatrist. She felt the psychiatrist respected her son and was comfortable about her taking part in their sessions.
Elizabeth said it would be really useful when family members first come into contact with the mental health system if practitioners were more understanding of the fact that new carers probably do not know anything about 'mental illness'. She said she thinks practitioners should explain to carers early on what 'mental illness' means, and what 'effects' drugs might have. Elizabeth also thinks carers 'right from the start' can offer valuable information that can be used for the treatment of their loved ones. She said practitioners would risk 'missing out on' this information if the carer and the system 'can't communicate'.
Elizabeth described caring for her son as 'a privilege' from which she said has benefitted because she feels they have developed over the past 15 years a 'mutual relationship' based on 'trust' and 'being open'.