Austin Mardon first felt the effects of schizophrenia when he was five-years-old. The mental illness caused high stress, and Mardon couldn’t trust his senses, as the disease affected his personality, cognition and short-term memory. Mardon was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 30, as he was wheeled into an emergency room in a psychotic state. He left the doctor’s office with the message and feeling that “life was over.”
“Doc was wrong,” Mardon said.
Schizophrenia runs in the Mardon family. His great-grandmother lived with schizophrenia, and his mother dealt with post-partum schizophrenia and depression. His cousin, who committed suicide, also battled the mental illness. It’s currently unknown what exactly causes schizophrenia, but predisposed gene pool, stress to the brain and the surrounding environment are widely believed to be main contributors, all of which apply to Mardon.
Many patients diagnosed with schizophrenia are prescribed anti-psychotic medication, such as clozapine, but noncompliance to take medication is common. Some patients may struggle with finding a reason to stay on medication, so they refuse treatment and their prescribed anti-psychotics and their side-effects, which include weight gain, erectile dysfunction, blurred vision, drowsiness and dizziness.
Growing up and watching his mother struggle with the illness made Mardon feel like he lived in the shadow of schizophrenia. This made him determined to stay on his psychiatric medication. In an open letter detailing his fight a “monster,” Mardon said he had to find a reason to stay sane and deal with the “horrible” side-effects. That reason is volunteering and advocacy, “for those who can’t speak for themselves.”
“The stigma we live with makes it very difficult to publicly acknowledge that I have this illness,” Mardon said in his letter. “I’ve had social workers tell me that I’m a monster because of it. The only way to fight the stigma we live with is through education. Sometimes that means a person at a time.”
Mardon and his wife, Catherine, often speak publicly about the illness — the “real illness,” and not the one showcased in Hollywood. The Mardons have made it their mission to act as a voice for sufferers and prepare students in social work, psychology, nursing and medicine for those “real” sufferers.
As someone who earned a PhD in geography from Greenwich University in Scotland after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually being named as an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Mardon wants sufferers to know it’s still possible to have a normal life. Seeking help, visiting campus support services and taking medication could be the first step, he said.
Those people may hide their condition because they are scared of the societal stigma. Mardon doesn’t blame them, but said he’s optimistic that public view of schizophrenia will change over time.
“You don’t discriminate people with heart attacks, why would you discriminate other people with a psychological disorder. But now things are much better than when I was in my youth. The conversation has started. That’s the most important thing.”
Mardon’s next public lecture, “Keys to Compliance: For the Mentally Ill,” will take place in Bernard Snell Hall on Nov. 19 from 1 to 2 p.m. He will be discussing the importance of staying on medications and his goal of reducing the societal stigma of mental illnesses. His wife Catherine will also be available for questions following the lecture.