The sound of gunshots ripped Jody Roke’s world apart. She had called the police, hoping they could convince her son Matt to get treatment.
He was 33 and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia ten years earlier, though some signs of the illness were present before. Since then, he had been in and out of hospitals, taking medications for short periods of time and dropping them when they became uncomfortable. Once, he stopped taking them because they gave him a twitch, forcing him to raise his little finger, and his peers called him gay.
Jody stayed by his side during those ten long years, adapting to the ever-changing circumstances, advocating for him, visiting him whenever he moved out, and receiving him back with a mixture of love and fear. In spite of her pain, anxiety, and rollercoaster of emotions, she couldn’t imagine her life without him. “When he hurts, I hurt,” she wrote a few months earlier. “When he is happy, I feel like dancing and cheering. I love him, he is my son, I often introduce him as my Matt.”
She had tried unsuccessfully to get him the care he needed. His mind was too cloudy to accept treatment. He had run from a nurse thinking she wanted to “put him out like a dog.” Paranoia is common in schizophrenia.
Her inability to keep her son in a hospital had been a constant source of frustration. Once, Matt had persuaded a relative to sign the release form. Another time, a doctor thought Matt was well enough to go home, even if he had been pacing outside of his parents’ door with an axe. Jody offered a switch: “You take Matt home and I stay here,” she told the doctor.
And here he was again, on the night of May 2, 2012, pacing outside their home with a knife. He had actually walked into his parents’ bedroom, still armed, a few minutes earlier. It was the worst episode the family had ever experienced. Jody saw it as another chance to get him hospitalized. She had called the police before, after Matt had drilled holes in his walls to look for hidden cameras and bugs, and the officers had been helpful. So she called them again.
This time, it was a different outcome. Matt took a step toward the officers, who opened fire.
Sylvia Harmsma, one of Jody’s best friends, helped her to organize the funeral. She purchased some silver ribbons (often connected to mental health awareness) and attached them to pins. Later, Sylvia and Jody thought of using the ribbons to start an awareness campaign.
Most people don’t know much about schizophrenia, which can happen quickly and where it’s least expected. When it does, it catapults a family into a whole new world of challenges, uncertainties, and downright terrors. They have little time to learn about the condition, treatments, and correct responses while the illness progresses before their eyes. They also have to learn how to navigate the mental health system, which, Jody says, “is like learning a new set of laws.”
Because of the stigma that accompanies the illness, many families choose to remain in silence. If they ever open up, they are often met by an equally unprepared community. This is tragic because few people survive schizophrenia without support from family and friends. Too often the church, which has the potential of being a valuable source of assistance and a haven of safety and acceptance, ends up turning its back in indifference, fear, or condemnation.
“There is a need for education,” Sylvia said. Over the years, their satin ribbons have evolved into small, sterling silver lapel clips. To those, Jody and Sylvia added key chains, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Each item comes with a card listing numbers to call for mental health support. At the moment, these addresses and the message on the card are aimed at Canadians: “One in five Canadians will experience a mental health challenge in their lifetime. You are not alone!” Jody and Sylvia can also prepare cards for those who are living in the States.
The goal of the campaign is stated on the back: “to raise awareness of mental health issues and to stamp out the stigma and discrimination that exists in our society. Misconceptions and misunderstandings often prevent patients and families from seeking the help they need. … Let’s break the silence and talk about it!”
One man has especially embraced the cause, distributing these cards in different places and placing a donation jar next to them. It didn’t take long for the campaign to raise $5000, which Jody and Sylvia used to offer scholarships to students who lived with mental illness or planned to work in the mental health field.
Breaking the Silence
When families who live with schizophrenia first begin to talk to others about their challenges, they often discover a host of aching people. Without this prompting, few would ever mention it, especially in churches where fellowship is often limited to a superficial chat over coffee.
One of Jody’s prayers while Matt was alive was that he would know he was loved and would see himself as an important human being created in God’s image. Consciously treating others as image-bearers is a valuable step in fighting stigma and bringing inclusion.
“We never forget the kindness of the people we have met while traveling this road with Matt,” Jody wrote on her website. “The teacher who looked for the positive in him, the sympathetic secretaries in the high school, the people from our church who invited him for dinner, Matt’s boss who doesn’t give up on Matt when he doesn’t come to work. Maybe they are just little things, just people doing their job, but it is those little things that have made all the difference.”
We don’t need big gestures, we just need to be there. We need to take seriously the idea that we are a church family, the body of Christ where a hurting member affects the rest. We can also elevate our conversations and become genuinely interested in others. If we hear that someone has a mental illness, we can offer our friendship and support to both them and their families, and we can learn more about their condition in order to better understand their challenges. Prayer is always needed, but it should not be an excuse to evade other tangible expressions of love and concern. As Jesus taught us by word and example, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).