A Schizophrenia Society of Alberta staff member is pictured holding a sign during the Walk of Hope on Tuesday May 24, 2022. Members and supporters of the SSA walked down Stephen Avenue in Calgary, Alberta, for a community education and advocacy event meant to combat the stigma surrounding schizophrenia.  (Photo by Daniel McCarten/The Emery Weal)

The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta’s (SSA) work across the province is endless as they aim to reduce stigmas surrounding the illness.

The society provides programs and initiatives that provide educational support to patients, caregivers, and the public.

They also specialize in community education presentations and classes, and they organize larger awareness events, such as the Walk of Hope.

The marches took place concurrently in municipalities across Alberta on May 24, 2022, for World Schizophrenia Day. 

“From my perspective, education is power, and regardless of the situation, having accessibility for learning and understanding how to support someone is important,” said Yvonne Benson, a Peer Support Worker at the Community Addictions and Mental Health Clinic in northeast Calgary.

“I think education can really help close that gap when it comes to stigma. As we increase awareness, that can only combat the barriers and challenges that go with mental health struggles.”

Yvonne Benson poses for a photo following the Walk of Hope on May 24, 2022. Benson, a peer support worker for Alberta Health Services, brought her peer group to the event. (Photo by Daniel McCarten/The Emery Weal)

Paying it forward

Barn Sarsfield found support and community with the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, and used the newfound stability to help other people who struggle with the disorder.

“On vacation just outside of Calgary, my friend and I were sitting in a bar talking about our illnesses and there was only one other person in the bar; she really flipped out on us,” said Barb Sarsfield, Community Education Presenter for SSA.

However, fear and a lack of understanding amongst the general public leads to stigmatization for anyone suffering from the disorder. 

“She was saying that she thought I would murder her, or hurt her, or her boyfriend, or take their stuff, and I’m just not that kind of a person.” 

Barn Sarsfield, a Community Education Presenter for the SSA, poses for a photo on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Sarsfield has been presenting with SSA for over 20 years. (Photo by Daniel McCarten/The Emery Weal) 

“When I was discriminated against, that’s when I got the idea that if I was ever well enough, I would tell my story,” said Sarsfield. 

“I would show people that I am an ordinary person first, and I just have something extraordinary going on in my mind.”

Sarsfield started presenting with SSA in 2002, going to high schools and universities to speak.

In addition to her work presenting her personal experience, she is involved with an educational play put on by the society, and spent years as a peer support worker.

The People

Individuals living with the illness have a similar perspective on the importance of accessible information and guidance.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and stigma out there. I would want the public to learn to see the person, not just the illness.” — Devin Adair

“The skills I’ve learned have made a difference in my life. I can turn to them when I need them,” said Devin Adair, an individual with schizophrenia who attended the Walk of Hope. 

Adair has been a patient at the Carnat Centre day treatment program for six years, and is part of Benson’s peer group.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and stigma out there; I would want the public to learn to see the person, not just the illness.”

Devin Adair poses for a photo during the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta Walk of Hope on May 24, 2022 (Photo by Daniel McCarten/The Emery Weal)

According to a Government of Canada report on mental illness, most individuals with schizophrenia are socially withdrawn and non-violent.

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines schizophrenia as a psychiatric disorder that affects 1 in 100 people. It can include symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, and impaired cognitive ability. 

Professionals in the field stress the importance of informing the public of the challenges of the disease, in addition to directly supporting those struggling with schizophrenia. 

“I wasn’t accepted in society because I was such a weirdo as a kid, but now I am. Now I’m teaching people to look at other things, to look at people who are different and behave differently, and to assume that there is something going wrong in their brain, and not treat them like dirt,” said Sarsfield. 

“That has given me a purpose.”

Daniel McCarten

Daniel McCarten is a first-year journalism student at SAIT and contributes to and works as the managing editor at The Emery Weal.

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