real life

When Elfy was 13, she Googled her mum's medication. The word schizophrenia appeared.

"It’s a medication for crazy people." Those words were spoken to Elfy Scott over a decade ago, but she can still remember hearing them. Clearly.

She was 13 at the time, and she and her best friend were engaged in a Harriet The Spy-style investigation into the prescription drugs she’d found while rifling through her parents' medicine cabinet. The drugs belonged to her mother. 

"...a medication for crazy people," her friend said down the phone in a blunt summary of her research.

Watch: Supporting a loved one with anxiety. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia

Elfy didn’t understand. Her mother wasn’t crazy. Eccentric, sure; even a little odd. But not crazy. 

The Sydney teenager’s own online searching returned more words that confused her. 'Schizophrenia'. 'Psychosis'.

These were words rarely spoken in the Scott’s home, but as Elfy later came to appreciate, they were very much a part of her family’s story.

"I noticed my mum speaking to people who weren't there."

Elfy Scott, now 29, is the author of The One Thing We’ve Never Spoken About, a book that shines a light on the lived experiences of people with complex mental health conditions. People including her mother.

As Elfy learned as a teen, her mother has schizophrenia, a mental disorder that affects roughly one in every 100 Australians. It often begins in adolescence or early adulthood, and it typically involves hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking.


The cause of schizophrenia is not fully understood, but genetics are believed to be the biggest risk factor. People who experience violence or trauma are also at increased risk.

Despite stubborn myths, it does not typically involve 'split personalities' nor cause the person to be violent.

Speaking to Mamamia’s No Filter podcast, Elfy said that while acceptance of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders has improved remarkably in recent years, complex conditions are being left behind.

Her mother’s schizophrenia, for example, was barely acknowledged, even in her family home. The silence, meant to shelter Elfy and her two older siblings, only left them confused and questioning. And it left her parents to shoulder their challenges alone.

As she wrote in her book, "[My mother’s] condition didn’t seem shameful to speak about so much as it just felt scary and dark — too jarring to make sense in our day-to-day lives outside the house and too big to concern other people with. And so, it became a secret."

Image: Instagram.


Elfy stresses that her childhood was "fairly average and happy". A largely privileged, middle-class existence on Sydney’s North Shore. There were weekends spent at the local pool. Afternoon sports matches. Games of Monopoly. Evenings watching Blackadder, and eagerly waiting for her father to arrive home from his job in the finance industry.

But there were less-conventional scenes, too.

"I noticed my mum speaking to people who weren't there," Elfy said. "There were certain times where she grabbed a kitchen broom and started smacking the walls with it because she heard voices."

Elfy also recalls the sound of the sliding door-chain and deadlock repeatedly echoing through the house each night — a symbol of her mother’s paranoid obsession with people breaking into their home and stealing their documents and identities. These imagined intruders felt so real to Elfy’s mother that she engaged police on multiple occasions.


Through it all, Elfy said nothing.

"I must have just felt really uncomfortable talking about it," she told Mamamia. "I mean, I was close to everybody. I was close to my sister and my brother. And they must have known, but I never asked them about it. I think that's a pretty strong signal in itself about the stigma that still surrounds it."

Elfy’s high school counsellor was the first person to formally tell her about her mother’s condition when Elfy was 14 (she believes her father had entrusted the counsellor with the task). 

"After that, I started researching things in more depth. I spent a lot of time on the computer, a lot of time on Wikipedia, just Googling mental health conditions and coming to understand what they were," she said.

It’s a quest that led her to undertake a psychology degree and to write her book. Through interviews with her mother and access to her journals, along with intensive research into complex mental health conditions, Elfy began to more fully appreciate what her mother had been through.

How her symptoms began when she was an adult and a mother of two young children. How it began with a sole female voice insulting her, calling her a 'prostitute'. How the voices intensified and multiplied when she was pregnant with Elfy. How she initially kept it from her husband. How she managed to raise her family despite the torment and exhaustion. How isolated and lonely she felt.

"I think that is one of the strangest and maybe deepest regrets that I have about being a child and not knowing about the condition," Elfy said. "We couldn't understand it enough to say, 'It's okay, it's gonna be fine. We know what you're experiencing. These are just hallucinations.' We didn't have that language."


Elfy’s mother is one of the fortunate ones. She had the financial means and geographical proximity to access regular, long-term psychiatric care, as well as a strong support network anchored by her husband and circle of close friends.

Many don’t.

And so, Elfy’s book also interrogates how emergency services, social services, the healthcare system and justice system continue to fail people with complex mental health conditions, and the ways in which silence and stigma stops those failures from being addressed.

"Our mental healthcare system is very weighted towards emergencies. A lot of people will be existing out there, struggling with mental health conditions, and the only time that they receive acute care that wraps around them for a short period of time, is when they end up in emergency rooms and hospitals," she said.

"Recovery is possible for a huge amount of people who live with schizophrenia. And what we have to do is ensure that they have the right services, the right access and resources to be able to accomplish that."

To hear more of Elfy’s story, including the text message that prompted Elfy to intervene in her mother’s care, listen to No Filter.

Feature Image: Instagram

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