Some background

This mental illness is probably one of the most misunderstood of all mental health illnesses. Hollywood has characterised this illness as someone with split or multiple personalities that are seriously homicidal. Sorry guys, but it isn’t. The person that suffers the most is the one that is affected by this illness. Second to that is the family.

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that is characterised by hallucinations of all the senses. It is not just hearing voices. It includes hallucinations of touch, taste, vision and smell as well. The best Hollywood representation of this would be "Black Swan" even if it depicts a much more dramatised view of it. The experiences of the character are classic schizophrenia symptoms. 

Why is this so important to me? Because my mother has schizophrenia. In these articles, I would like to shed some light on the illness itself as well as the effect it has on the people that are closest to the person that struggles with this illness.

I had my mother committed for involuntary evaluation at a state facility for 72 hours in 2009. I did this when I was 35 years old. By that time, both my siblings and I knew that our mother had schizophrenia for at least 14 years. So, why did I/we leave it for so long?

Mostly, because of the South African Health Law that states a person cannot be admitted for involuntary assessment unless they prove to be a danger to themselves or others. This can be done voluntary if the person is willing, but my mother never was.

While my mother’s hallucinations were “benign” or not dangerous to herself or others, we had no legal right to have her evaluated against her will. Her conviction that someone was shooting her with microwaves, or that there was a vast underground river running beneath her house and the white cars that followed her everywhere did not constitute a danger.

That is the unfortunate truth.

As I said, we had known that my mother had schizophrenia for at least fourteen years before I had her committed. But, it was only at that time that she had proven to be a danger to herself. She was never a danger to others, except for being truly argumentative. My mother is very small. At a full five feet, she learned very early on that words could do as much if not more than physical violence. This became her go-to defence if anyone threatened her, whether that threat was real or imagined.

Another aspect that kept us from having her committed earlier is the fact that my mother is highly intelligent. Her aunt also had schizophrenia and because of her knowledge about the illness, she managed to “hide” the symptoms with rationalisations that sounded plausible for many years. It was only when her control started to slip and she began to tell us about the spider that talked to her, that we could no longer doubt her condition.

After her evaluation in a state hospital, she was transferred to a state mental health facility. She stayed there for six months before coming out. She would have been released earlier if we were able to provide a home for her where she could be monitored. Unfortunately, this took some doing. When she was admitted, my mother was living on her own, in her own home. Due to her paranoia, we couldn’t sell her home and place her in a facility. Our only option was for one of us to take her into our home. At that time I was emotionally unable to do so. For that matter, I’m still unable to do this.

The solution was for my brother and sister-in-law to move into my mother’s house and complete the separate garden flat that I had started several years before. This solution was the only way we could ensure that she wasn’t alone, but still had some autonomy of her life. The biggest reason for this was the doctor’s advice that she would never be able to accept the fact of her illness and would have to be watched and monitored to ensure that she took her medication as prescribed.

My brother and mostly my sister-in-law have been doing this since she was released from the mental health facility. And my mother is doing fine. That doesn’t mean that they never had setbacks. However, they dealt with this and managed to ensure a safe environment for my mother.

Next up… how you question your personal experiences when your primary caregiver happens to have schizophrenia.


This is very moving Sumanda and sad. I often wonder about mothers of your Mum's generation. They were told their role was to stay at home and look after the children and this was meant ot be a fulfilling role. Intelligent Mum's struggled with this I believe as there was a lot of mental health issues in that generation - my mother was one and I know of several others.

That completely makes sense to me.  My older brother, who lives up the road, is paranoid schizophenic.  This is a highly medicated life in a grossly under resourced area.  I act as an advocate in his meetings with case workers which has improved his support network.  This is where family is always there for support and emdia only gives one distorted, dramatic view of how people live.

Thanks Sumanda.  It is long overdue that mental illness is accepted as much as a broken arm or leg.  We need to break down the stigmatism, while breaking down the political barriers that are abusive on the family.  No family should have to suffer as much as yours through this, we aas a community should be embracing you, giving you the support you need (and deserve) through these difficult times.