Calgary Heroes: Breaking the stigma of schizophrenia

Diagnosed with schizophrenia, a Calgary man is working to help others through the illness

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Through peer support and theatrical performances, Darnell Piltingsrud is trying to make life better for people who suffer from schizophrenia.

By: Jennifer Friesen For Metro Published on Mon Oct 24 2016

While thinking back to the year 1988, Darnell Piltingsrud pauses for a moment and says, “I just remember being scared all the time.”

It was the year he began wandering around his neighbourhood, hearing voices that weren’t there.

At 22 years old, Piltingsrud was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“Things just weren’t right,” he said. “You have a good life and then all of the sudden everything changes.”

The chronic brain and behavior disorder can cause people to have trouble separating reality from imagination, sometimes causing auditory and visual hallucinations.

The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (SSA) estimates that one in 100 people will have some form of schizophrenia in their lifetime.

After Piltingsrud’s diagnosis, he spent 10 days in the hospital, and then seven years on a medication that left him feeling “tranquilized.” He grappled with his medications for years while facing a stigma for his illness, but now he’s on a mission to help others through it.

Three years ago, he joined the SSA’s Adult Peer Support program to connect with others who are facing the same struggles he did.

“I’ve come out on the other side,” he said. “I’m there. So I tell them that there’s hope. No matter how bad it gets, there’s always hope.”

The same year Piltingsrud joined the outreach program, he lost his cousin to schizophrenia.

His cousin had his first psychotic episode in his second year of medical school. He didn’t speak to anyone for three days, then continued to regress into his illness until he took his own life.

“That’s why it’s so important to me to help people with schizophrenia,” he said.

“(My cousin) had everything. He had intelligence, he had money, he had relationships, but something happened to him that was out of the ordinary. So I thought, maybe I can stop someone else from doing that. The outreach program is like a safety net.”

Piltingsrud said all the work is worth it when he sees progress in others. He’s seen more than 100 people through his work, but specifically remembers a man who was distant when first arrived at the support group, merely grunting when he was asked a question.

“But now, he’s cracking jokes, he’s laughing,” said Piltingsrud. “He’s reaching out. And that’s the essence of what we do. It feels good to see someone progress rather than regress.”

Piltingsrud is also a member of the SSA’s Starry, Starry Night Theatre Group. The community outreach partnership program travels to schools in Alberta telling the story of a young man named David as he goes through the beginning stages of schizophrenia.

“I’m trying to curb the stigma,” Piltingsrud said.

“We’re trying to get people to understand what schizophrenia is, rather than saying, ‘Oh, he’s mentally ill – he’s no good.’ The more we connect with people, the more we can help people going through the initial stages, because they’re scared. Schizophrenia doesn’t discriminate, we should show compassion.”