“Move to Brisbane, forget you ever had a daughter,” the psychiatrist said.
Melinda had just been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and caring for her, reasoned this experienced Adelaide mental health professional,would be simply too hard. Parents Bob and Judy Burke were told their best option may be to simply abandon their daughter, and leave the state.The pair dismissed the psychiatrist on the spot. In 2002, when the disturbing advice was received and rejected, Melinda was aged 33, and the Burkes had long become accustomed to receiving ‘inappropriate’ advice on how to care for her.
The parents’ first understanding of Melinda’s mental illnesses came when she was just eight years old. The little girl, who had been diagnosed with a mild intellectual disorder, told her mother she that felt “alone on an island, sinking”. Just before her sixteenth birthday, Melinda survived a first suicide attempt. She was hospitalised for a week.
By the age of 27, she was in and out of hospital, having self-harmed on an almost fortnightly basis. On one terrifying occasion, Bob and Judy had to physically save Melinda from taking her life. “It was hell,” says Judy. “It was absolute hell. She was forever saying: ‘I’m a bad person; I’m dreadful; I don’t know why you love me’. I certainly had prepared for her funeral.”
The parents also felt “guilt, and anger”, says Bob, “because, all along, we were told – yes – she has mental illness, but basically she was badly behaved”. Thoughout the ordeal, psychiatrist after psychiatrist told the couple Melinda’s central problem was “bad behaviour”. There was a threat by one psychiatrist – carried out – to cut off treatment if Melinda failed to hold a job. In another case, there was a blatant suggestion that parental abuse had caused Melinda’s illnesses….
While they are keen to point out that some medical professionals dealt with them with great competence and sympathy, they feel profoundly let down by many of the health professionals they have dealt with over the decades.
And they are not alone.
In 2012, the pair founded Sanctuary, a support group for carers of people with BPD….