“Look around,” she said. There are people in need of love and support all around, but “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid” to reach out.
Austin, a Canadian, is an assistant adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta.
A scientist by education, Austin was part of a NASA meteorite recovery expedition to the Antarctic in the 1980s at the age of 24. Unfortunately, the extreme difficulties of the expedition affected him mentally and physically.
Despite these challenges, he earned master’s degrees in science and education and published more articles and books, before being diagnosed at age 30 with schizophrenia, which he manages with medication.
He has since also obtained a PhD in geography and continued to publish and speak extensively in the fields of science, mental illness and disability.
Catherine was previously a lawyer focused on social justice issues, including death row appeals. She also helped the homeless and people with AIDs, and her work brought her into contact with many people struggling with mental illness.
“I have helped people that most other ordinary people didn’t want to be in the same room with,” she said.
After testifying in a case, Catherine was brutally attacked, leaving her with physical injuries, a traumatic brain injury, and PTSD. She was no longer able to practice law.
But Austin and Catherine have taken their sufferings and transformed into an opportunity to help others.
“When I got hurt and couldn’t practice law anymore, I didn’t just sit on a beach or curl up in a corner somewhere. I started taking care of people. Because that was something I could do, including [helping] a couple of kids who had Fetal Alcohol [Syndrome],” Catherine said.
The difference between Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, they said, is that there is no treatment, because it is caused by permanent brain damage before birth.
The best thing for someone in this situation is early identification and intervention, Austin said, “to give them coping mechanisms to manage it, teach them techniques.”
(Story cotinues below)
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“It’s almost like teaching someone who is blind or deaf how to maneuver around a world that they can’t quite perceive,” he said.
Catherine and Austin discovered, however, that many children and young adults with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome do not get early intervention. In many cases, due to poor family situations or a loss of their parents, they end up in foster care, and then, when they age out of the system, on the streets.
So, the Mardons started taking some of these teenagers and young adults into their home. They also reach out to other young adults suffering from mental illness. They throw parties for them and invite them over for the holidays.
“The most important thing when it comes to dealing with the disenfranchised is first you have to recognize their equal human dignity. And secondly, you have to take them where they are,” Catherine said.
People automatically expect the mentally ill to be scary, she said. “They’re humans.”
“They want to be invited to Sunday dinner... They want somebody to remember their birthday. They want somebody to invite them to Christmas.”