Keeping It Real:
Families, Community, and Mental Illness

by John Kerkhoven

©Photo by Maryse Latulippe

John Kerkhoven

Writer, editor, and document designer living in Montreal
Working on a book of stories
Plays blues harmonica

Unbreakable Minds
The National Film Board of Canada
Directed by
Abbey Jack Neidik
2004, 60 minutes, Canada

Randy and Brad, both in their thirties, are schizophrenic; Rob, in his early forties, suffered a major depressive disorder. "Unbreakable Minds" gives us a raw glimpse into their lives and the lives of those who live with and care for them.

Randy works as a supermarket bagger and has a girlfriend. Brad delivers pizza and has a difficult relationship with his father. Rob is very much alone in the world - most of us are not and cannot easily imagine ourselves to be. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and we learn that he had a brother who died of AIDS.


Rob speaks of his mother, “Mrs. Ruth Anne Burkhart Logan”, with love and respect. “Seventy-seven years old, sweetest woman in the world, and she’s a saint, but she never taught me how to cook and clean. She wanted to protect me,” he says. Because she has Alzheimer’s, his mother is not able to care for him in any practical way. He is ill-equipped to support himself, let alone make major decisions for himself. In addition to his depression, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder. He has the support of WilPower, an organization for the mentally ill and their families, but he has, so far as we know, no immediate kin concerned about him, and no close friends.

His outlook on life consists of a belief in God and a practical brand of optimism. “There’s always another day”, he says. “I’m a survivor”; “I know I can make it.” He wonders out loud how God could allow the afflictions that have beset his family, refusing, however, to blame God for them. He is a socially marginal person struggling with timeless questions that strike at the heart of what it is to be human.

On a more practical level, he strives to progress toward a life of independence. In the course of the film, Rob moves into a WilPower group home. He acknowledges that a goal of living there is to learn to be able to look after himself in order to get his own apartment and a girlfriend someday.

He explains that he has to move because his relatives are selling his mother’s house, where he has lived for more than thirty years, to pay for her medical bills.  This is the only mention of relatives besides his mother and brother.  He shows no hint of bitterness toward anyone. He is a strongly affective man who trusts in the goodness of others. Although he is limited in the range of things he thinks about and does, Rob is guileless and earns our respect. He must constantly confront his condition and situation, and he is open, affable and honest.


Brad’s case is highlighted by a segment with his grandmother, Alma, whose eyes well up with tears in the booth of a fast food restaurant during a weekly outing with her grandson. Talking to the camera, she tells us that Brad’s father, Henry (Hank), says mean things about his son and does not understand his son’s condition.  She is a woman caught between the rock of the truth and the hard place of her family relationships. She loves her grandson and his father, and this causes her pain because Brad has problems she can do nothing about; and because Henry’s obstinacy toward his son only adds another level of difficulty to an already difficult situation.

Henry admits to arguments with Brad that become physical due to his own strong temper. We do not know all of Brad’s story, but we perceive enough to suspect that his condition may well be due to more than a brain disorder, possibly having much to do with growing up in an environment of expectations placed upon his shoulders by an insecure father who admits to being disappointed that his son, who was a bright, good-looking teen-ager, did not fulfill the promise of his youth.

Brad’s mother, Bette, carries the bulk of the burden of her son’s mental illness and does her best to understand her son’s mind. “Bradley wants so desperately to be normal, and he has such pains in his heart because of it,” she says. “Normal” can mean many things. His parents seem to wish for Brad to live a normal life as measured by social position and achievements: education, employment, independence. Brad seems to want a normal emotional life. He tells his mother that he no longer experiences natural ups and downs, and that he misses crying. These are the effects of medication and reasons he would like to be off it. In the scene in the fast-food restaurant, Brad tells his grandmother that he used to cry frequently as a child, burying his face in his pillow so as not to be heard, and crying and smiling at the same time. She is dumbstruck and visibly disturbed by this revelation.

At 31, Brad is on the verge of completing his high school education. He is doing well, and his medication dosage is reduced, and then he has a new crisis. “Some like to say I relapsed, but it’s not a relapse,” he says. Trying to explain what happened, he says that he experienced people going through his soul, through his eyes, and that something in his eyes broke. He felt John Lennon’s face go through him. “I can feel when people go through you, because my head’s broken,” he says. The word “relapse” does not do justice to the psychological reality he experiences.


Following this last crisis, he moves into a WilPower group home. We see him there shortly after he moves in. He expresses feelings of panic and tells us, “God told me not to get scared.” He repeats this: “Don’t get scared.” His mother comes for a visit. In a scene we are unprepared for, while his mother listens from the next room, he plays a dramatic pop song on the badly out of tune group home piano with emotion and skill.

His family continues to hold out hopes for him, but this is like an albatross around his neck. We are left with the distinct impression that the sorts of accomplishments that, for most of us, mark our passage and development through life are overwhelming for Brad to a degree that is insurmountable for him. Perhaps, in time, he will find his own way forward.

Identity and Medication

Brad is a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon. Randy, in his delusional states, believes that Guns N’ Roses know him and care about him. Rob used to be a DJ at a radio station, and the walls of the basement of his family home are covered with rock posters.

We live in a celebrity society. Ours is also an individualistic society with status accorded to wealth and possessions. The vast majority of us live within the financial range of the suburban middle class that is pervasive in this film: shops and malls, cars and restaurants, tidy offices, and well-appointed detached houses. There is little or no relief from the functional banality of middle-class living. Music provides a way out.

Nearly fifty years ago, R. D. Laing pursued an existential and psychologically-based approach to the schizophrenic’s condition. He speculated, and went some way to showing, that the schizophrenic’s experience and behaviour is an intelligible response to the situation in which he finds himself. Though credited with “putting the person back in the patient,” (see link above) Laing’s work has been for the most part sidelined since the 1970s when the consumer movement took hold and families shook off shame and blame – a change in social attitudes that is due in no small part to the attention Laing drew to the mentally ill. At the same time, diagnoses became increasingly elaborate, and prescription medicines and behaviour-focused therapies took the place of early shock therapy (which continues to be used, but under stringent conditions).

Brad and Randy, the two schizophrenics in "Unbreakable Minds," are both thoughtful and sensitive, and both struggle with normalcy and identity under a haze of medication. Medication controls the symptoms of schizophrenia, but neither Brad nor Randy feels like himself under medication. Instead, both feel themselves to be medicated; both desire the freedom of thinking and feeling without medicated constraint; and neither is stable without medication. “I want my brain back,” Randy says.

It is sufficient to witness their aggravation to know that mental illness is far from having a cure, if one is even possible. It is also why Laing’s work remains valuable for the treatment and understanding of schizophrenia: it is crucial to keep the individual in view, to take his or her total experience and situation into account. At the same time, although both Brad and Randy long for their normal state of mind, that normal state of mind is unliveable and, in Randy’s case, even potentially dangerous.


Randy is unable to function for long without medication. He is on Haldol which has potential long-term muscular side-effects. To avoid this, he is prescribed a new medication which does not work and leads, over time, to his becoming angry and verbally aggressive. While on the new, ineffective medication, Randy angrily says to his father one evening at the dinner table, “Every single shrink we dealt with took your money. And what did you get out of it? You still got a crazy son.”

Schizophrenia hits entire families who struggle against its persistent incoming tide. It is a problem, as Randy’s case forcefully shows, that money cannot solve. The whole family faces frustration and feelings of helplessness in the situation – the sort of frustration and helplessness that people face when they have no money to buy food or to pay the rent or medical bills. When Randy is outside listening to music after his outburst at the dinner table, his father, Allen, sums up their predicament, saying to his wife, “We don’t have any medications at our hands that work any longer. We’re at zip, zero.”

When Randy was about four or five he told his father, “Daddy I never see you any longer”. His father, then a workaholic, changed his work schedule to allow for time with his family. He is lovingly grateful to Randy for this change in his life. Then he could do something for his son. Since the onset of Randy’s schizophrenia, things are different. Early in the film, Allen recounts an occasion when he screamed that all he could do for his son is pay bills. In another clip, and with greater acceptance, he says, “He’s had to struggle for every good day, and I don’t think that he should have to.”

Randy says that he considers his mental illness a gift. Though his father says, “That boggles my mind,” we should consider for a moment Dr. Temple Grandin, famous both for her work in animal behaviour and for being autistic. Grandin champions the differences of the minds of people on the autistic spectrum. The cases are not perfectly comparable. Autism does not lead her to delusions that strain her relations with others. The similarity is that she is different from the majority of others. And that difference is what makes her who she is. Randy believes he is more compassionate toward others than he might be if he were not mentally ill. Whether or not this is so (there is no way of knowing), the mentally ill – and R. D. Laing would agree – may well have things to offer, not in spite of, but because of their condition. We should be careful just how much emphasis we place on the word “illness.”

In Randy’s family, Allen is the vocal centre of their collective situation. In fact, he is all but powerless before his son’s illness, but his efforts and his business-like articulation of the factors at play keep it front and centre without illusions. Randy’s mother, Lois, is much less vocal in the film, but the few times she speaks, we hear the force of her concern for her son. When Randy’s aggression is getting out of hand, Allen says that he cannot tolerate any more battling with his son over medication and that it must stop or Randy must leave. Lois says, “When he’s in this condition, we can’t listen to him. But when he is stable, he is insightful and he’s very sharp and we can listen to him.” And she makes her bottom line clear: “I don’t want him to be out on the streets. He has the power to destroy himself.” Randy, soon after, is hospitalized.

                  Randy with his father, Allen

Randy goes back on Haldol. Allen’s attempts to find a solution around the problem of the possible long-term side-effects of Haldol have failed, but Randy stabilizes to the point of moving out and getting his own car and apartment. Randy says things might have been worse, that he might have had a terrible divorce. But he is not just grateful, but happy, as we see him at the end of the film, with his girlfriend and the independence he has. His parents are also grateful, and proud of him.

Living with Mental Illness

Anyone who has faced a crisis within his or her immediate family – and most everyone at some point or another does, be it poverty, illness or disease, disability or addiction or anything else – will understand how daily uncertainties preoccupy everyone involved. The afflicted person, at the centre of the storm, is not just affected, but consumed by the uncertainties.

The three men in "Unbreakable Minds" are subject to swings between reason and rage, clarity and depression, hope and … not despair because there is little of that in this film, but frustration and sometimes personal disappointment. But for them, it is who they are. Their reality is confused, delusional, non-functional. They search for some sort of integrity of character and personality, something that they can recognize as themselves.

Basically, we would rather not have to deal with mental illness; we do not understand it, it makes us uncomfortable. The opening of a WilPower group home makes this plain. We hear many voices of worry and protest that chime, at best, “fine, but not here”.

These family portraits – including Rob’s – show us complex lives that are more than stories of medicating mental conditions that fall outside the functional norm. They show us some of the ways that norms – individual, familial, societal – stretch and strain and are redefined when emotional and psychological life, usually guarded by everyday routine, jump the guardrails of daily existence. In a word, these portraits show us resilience within and beyond families living with mental illness.

Several moments endear us to the people in this film: Randy playing air guitar along with Slash, his rock star hero; his girlfriend expressing her sympathetic worry about his medication change when she says, “I’m not sure he’s okay”, and when she says that maybe he’s been injured by the medicine he’s been given; Brad playing the piano in his group home; Rob laughing and reciting some of his on-air chatter from when he worked at a radio station many years before.

              Randy and his girlfriend, Nancy

The filmmakers deserve credit for their tact and treatment. They delicately avoid – out of, we suspect, regard for Allen – drawing attention to the obvious lingering concern that Randy may yet face long-term physical side-effects from Haldol. And they adopt an understated, unobtrusive approach throughout this documentary, as in their use of text on the screen to introduce issues and facts as simply as possible.  In the end, they leave the discussion to Rob, Brad, and Randy and to the people surrounding them, thereby sparing us interpretation and showing us the extent of the web of relations and support that is the reality of mental illness in contemporary society.

Contact: John Kerkhoven

Note: For many years, Lois Siegel taught at John Abbott College (Montreal).
Once upon a time, John Kerkhoven was one of her English Literature students.

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