Psychosis patients fight against social stigma

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 2010, 12:00am

When Nimue Chan's mother found out eight years ago that her daughter had been diagnosed with psychosis, she became angry, threw away all the medication and told her to seek religious help to cure her illness instead.

'My mother insisted I only suffered from emotional disturbance which was normal for young people, and she said I did not need any medication. She even had a fierce row with my doctor, accusing him of poisoning me with the medicines,' Chan said.

Her mother then took her to church where members of the congregation claimed psychosis - a mental illness that interferes with a person's capacity to meet life's everyday demands - could be cured by praying and listening to the gospel.

'At home, my mother would always put on CDs playing hymns and gospels and turn them up loud. It was very frustrating and was no good for my condition,' she said.

Chan eventually ignored the advice from her mother and the church members and insisted on retaking her treatment. She moved out of the family home, and after graduating from university she found a job. However, she quit after a while to work as a part-time tutor so that she could have more time to see her doctors and to rest.

Psychiatry professor Eric Chen Yu-hai of the University of Hong Kong said Chan's case was not uncommon among psychosis patients. Unlike Chan who was forced to give up treatment, some patients stop the medication to avoid social stigma.

Chen is also the chairman of the Hong Kong Early Psychosis Intervention Society. According to a survey in 2006 led by Chen, about one-third of psychosis patients have drug non-compliance problems.

Clinical assistant professor of psychiatry May Lam Mei-ling said psychiatric drugs carry side-effects such as dizziness, trembling and weight gain that may lead patients to stop the medication without telling their doctors. 'But that can be dangerous,' Lam said.

Chen warned that some patients would suffer irreversible deterioration. The survey of 484 patients showed 38 per cent of those suffering early onset of the condition failed to take medication as prescribed, and one-quarter stopped taking medication without telling their doctors.

'We are very concerned about the problem of drug non-compliance. I had one patient who stopped the medication without telling us and she ended up developing severe conditions in her brain functions, such as loss of memory. Even after she returned to her doctor for a new round of treatment, the damage to her brain function was already irreversible,' Chen said.