Doting dads heal troubled minds

Visitors take photos at the Thailand Illumination Festival 2017 on Ratchadaphisek Road, held in honour of the late King Rama IX and His Majesty the King. (Photos by Patipat Janthong)

Sawang Yommoon didn’t understand what was wrong with his son when the boy started having “hallucinations” while in secondary school.

He also exhibited signs of paranoia and rage, convinced people were “out to get him”, the 49-year-old father recalls.

“At first I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It just came out of the blue. He started seeing things that weren’t there,” said Mr Sawang, a labourer in Bangkok.

“He kept saying he could hear people, that they were going to hurt him. He would rush outside and not tell us where he was going.

“We were at our wit’s end as he was uncooperative and aggressive and would argue with us from dusk till dawn.”

A father carries his son on his shoulders during a visit to Dusit Zoo.

While many parents may have put this down to teenage angst or watched as their offspring went off the rails and conceivably ran afoul of the law, Mr Sawang sought medical and later psychiatric help.

The boy, whose name is being withheld to protect him from being discriminated against in a society where mental illness is heavily stigmatised but frequently flies under the radar, was diagnosed as being mentally unwell.

Mr Sawang decided to take matters into his own hands. He has spent the last decade caring for his son, which doctors say has worked more magic than any professional or institutionalised help could have done.

“It was my duty,” he says.

The boy, who is 23, now cooks, cleans and chips in with household chores. Instead of swearing at, or fighting with his parents, he and his parents now talk about life and the kind of social and other problems he is facing.

“I hope he keeps getting better and stronger so he can socialise properly with everyone in society one day,” Mr Sawang adds.

A visitor looks at an outline of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej highlighted with LED lights at the Thailand Illumination Festival 2017 on Ratchadaphisek Soi 8 in Bangkok. It was organised to remember the late King on his birthday.

What did it take to get him here? It’s simple, says Mr Sawang: A parent’s doting care, loving attention and understanding coupled with a sensible regime of prescribed medications to “take the edge off” his condition.

On Tuesday, the proud father was named one of five dads praised by the Department of Mental Health as a role model for other parents who have to care for mentally ill children.

A staggering 20% of Thais suffer from some kind of mental illness including depression, according to the department.

The event was held to mark Father’s Day in Thailand along with the birthday of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away on Oct 13, 2016 and whose body was cremated in a grand ceremony seven weeks ago after a year of national mourning.

Thailand’s national day also fell on Tuesday, making it a special red-letter day on the Thai calendar.

Reflecting on the last decade, Mr Sawang wanted to thank the team of psychiatrists at Srithanya Hospital in Nonthaburi for providing him with sage advice and his son with much-needed medications all these years.

Also on the department’s list of role-model fathers was 66-year-old businessman Pichet Mujjalintangkul, whose 31-year-old son is bipolar.

“I want to tell other fathers coping with this kind of thing that these kids need to feel they are loved,” he says. “The drugs and doctors are crucial but so is taking the time to care for your child who is sick.”

The Department of Mental Health has set up a filter system at hospitals nationwide to detect people who may be suffering from various kinds of mental illness.

It has also assigned local health volunteers to visit and give advice to families who are nursing someone with mental illness, said Somrak Choovanichwong, a senior psychiatrist at Srithanya Hospital.

“Mental illnesses including depression are now a global concern and a huge burden for families because it can be so time consuming and morale-sapping,” Dr Somrak said.

A man feeds animals during a family trip to Dusit Zoo in Bangkok. Zoo authorities are discussing a plan to relocate it to Pathum Thani’s Thanyaburi district in 2019.

The growth of untreated mental illness also has economic ramifications — raising the jobless rate, eating into the national workforce and putting more strain on already stretched medical and social welfare systems.

“Compared to the recommended international standard, we have less than one-fifth of the staff to deal with mentally ill patients,” Dr Somrak said.

“The ministry has set up a task force to help us narrow this gap and we are starting by introducing more training programmes for our staff so they can cope with more of these issues.”

She said early detection and treatment is crucial for a quick recovery. About 95% of those who suffer from depression can make a full recovery if they get the right treatment, she added.

Genetics is not the main cause of mental illness, social factors are, according to Perapong Chiewattanakul, director of the Caregivers Alliance Thailand Association.

He said many patients refuse to accept they are ill. The association hopes to roll out educational campaigns promoting the role of parents, especially fathers, in recognising their offspring need professional help. “But still the key is a loving heart,” he said.

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