A very special feature

This week’s Nature has a special feature on schizophrenia:

A special
collection of articles focuses on the challenges of schizophrenia, from spotting early symptoms during adolescence to changing the stigma associated with the disease.

It tells us that over 0.5% of the world’s population experience schizophrenia at some time in their lives, and that its impact is more debilitating than most psychiatric illnesses.  I haven’t read the special feature yet but hope to work through at least some of it. 

Last week I attended the funeral of someone I had known through work: Janey Antoniou. She was nearly the same age as me, just a few weeks older.  She had studied molecular biology at the University of Sussex and also gained a master’s degree in Genetics. She worked in Andy Mellor’s group at the MRC Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park, and followed him to NIMR when he moved here in the 1980s. When he left she joined Dimitris Kioussis’ group for a few years, leaving NIMR in the late 1990s. 
Her colleagues remember her at the weekly lab meetings. She would listen to whatever was being presented or discussed and then if she didn’t agree would come right out with “That’s all bollocks!”  I can just hear her saying that.  She was not afraid to let you know what she thought, but she was not a firebrand.  She really engaged with people and had a great deal of compassion. 
She was a keen musician and, like myself, a singer.  I came to know her as we both sang in  the Institute choir – a small group which put on a few informal concerts each year.  I remember her as a quirky individual, a bit unpredictable perhaps but with a big, generous laugh. After she left the Institute I didn’t see her again for several years. It some years later that I realised I had only known a small part of Janey.
One day, listening to the radio in a half-hearted way, I heard a program about mental health. A woman was describing an event in her life. She was standing on Westminster Bridge and then jumped off into the River Thames below. She was washed up a little way downstream and survived. The story was shocking not least because it was narrated in a very matter-of-fact way. I thought the voice seemed familiar and suddenly I realised it was Janey’s. I had an uncomfortable moment as I tried to put together my previous image of Janey with this new picture of who she was, and the torments she described. 
Janey suffered from depression and schizophrenia for many years; she was diagnosed in her 20s but had episodes of illness several years before that.  She has been very open about her illness, giving interviews like this one in the Guardian in 2007 or this in the Mirror earlier this year, and this podcast of a talk with Raj Persaud, also from 2007.  She was also an activist on mental health issues, working in various organisations and in later years in demand as a conference speaker. I understand that her direct and honest approach was much appreciated.  In effect, her ability to say “that’s all bollocks” with a smile on her face proved valuable in many situations. 
Janey developed a unique way of training police and ambulance officers. The Guardian article describes it:
Janey makes them listen to a
soundtrack of babbling, jeering voices while she asks questions such as, “What’s your postcode?” Most muddle their replies, and even experienced professionals sometimes tear off their earphones, visibly disturbed. Then she’ll ask, “How long do you think you could hear all that and live a normal life?” The point of the exercise is to help officers handle schizophrenics intelligently; and the experience Janey replicates is her own.
Those undergoing the training say it really helped them to understand and to deal with greater sensitivity with people with this illness. It wasn’t easy for Janey though.  Talking about her illness and drawing on her own experiences in this way was very draining as she had to relive the voices she heard.  In addition to this Janey worked part-time for Rethink, a charity devoted to people affected by severe mental illness, as a member of their research staff. Her profile page there lists some of her publications.She was active in the Mental Health Research Network stigma group, drawing attention to the problems faced by sufferers from mental illness.

The funeral was an emotional occasion – she was loved by many for her passion and compassion and admired by many for her truthtelling, sincerity and bravery. The most moving moment was when a friend of hers read a poem that Janey wrote.  It won the Martha Robinson Poetry Competition in 2006 and was entitled Ophelia in London. It is beautiful but so very sad. Janey lived a life that was inspiring and I feel privileged to have known her, however imperfectly. 

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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3 Responses to A very special feature

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

     What a wonderful post, Frank. The story is a sad one, but you tell it with such warmth and humanity. A moving tribute. My condolences on the loss of your colleague and friend, and thank you for sharing this part of her story.

  2. Alejandro Correa says:

    My condolences Frank is really sad, it is sad to lose friends.

  3. Frank Norman says:

     Thanks Maxine & Alejandro. Yes, Janey’s story was a sad one, but you couldn’t help but be full of admiration for her. 

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