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Alien forces and inner demons: One man’s struggle with mental illness 

John Roswell wants to tell you his story.

click to enlarge John Roswell lives in Digby, where he founded Digby Clare Mental Health Volunteers. Roswell has experienced several psychotic episodes in his life and is always pushing for open and frank discussion about mental illness. - BRIAN MEDEL
  • John Roswell lives in Digby, where he founded Digby Clare Mental Health Volunteers. Roswell has experienced several psychotic episodes in his life and is always pushing for open and frank discussion about mental illness.
  • Brian Medel

Aliens have been known to communicate with John Roswell.

In the throes of severe psychosis, Roswell often thinks of himself as an alien here on earth. He chuckles when he says he was born on New World Island, off the Newfoundland coast in 1952. He even changed his name from Rowsell to Roswell several years ago as a shout-out to Roswell, New Mexico.

“I think it began in my mid teens actually,” he says about the onset of his troubles. “Back when I was 15, I began to experience a voice in my head that told me to drop out of school and go hitchhike around the world.”

The 62-year-old divorced father and grandfather says he’s now ready to share his stories. One of his goals is to encourage frank and open discussion about mental illness and its treatment in Nova Scotia.

“It’s not a big black dog that everybody’s got to be scared of,” he says.

Roswell has a bipolar disorder that has manifested itself in severe psychotic episodes. One such event came in early January during which he was removed in handcuffs from his Digby apartment by police.

That’s never happened before. Roswell insists he should have been left alone. Only folks who want help should get it, he says. He would have come through his ordeal in one piece. His daughters are not so sure.

Roswell and his ex-wife operated a little European-style restaurant some 20 years ago in Bridgewater. It was tough, managing the business as his mental illness overtook him. He hasn’t worked in that trade since 1992, when he was officially diagnosed after a bad episode. He hasn’t worked steadily for some time now.

Late last year Roswell became convinced the mood stabilizers he’d been taking weren’t working the way they once did. He often thought the drugs should be taken as required and not part of a daily regimen. So he quit taking them for a while and then began from scratch. A reboot of sorts. He called his daughters, both of whom live about 90 minutes away, and asked them to check on him regularly because he could sense himself slipping away during this time of uncertainty. Toward the end of the first week of January it happened.

“I was at my computer where I spend most of my time,” Roswell says. Strong influences began urging him to reprogram his computer’s operating system with his mind.

“Over a two-day period I believed that I was...interacting mentally with the computer.”

Roswell’s daughters began to fear for their father’s safety. “He’s invincible when he’s psychotic,” says Rachel Aalders.

She and her sister Eve Rowsell say their dad has never been violent but believes in multiple realities when he is ill—that he can exist on more than one plane at a time.

“I believe psychosis is a heightened state of awareness,” Roswell says.

He once came close to stepping in front of truck, thinking he would continue to exist in a parallel state if he were struck. But he worried he would deprive his daughters of their dad.

After missing a supper engagement in January with his daughters, arranged partly for them to assess his level of well being, Aalders and Rowsell became more worried about their dad.

“We started seeing...hundreds of posts on Facebook and they were really out of character,” says Aalders. “Some of them were in different languages. He had friended 270 people or something, in a couple of days, from all over the world.”

When they got him on the phone, Roswell would say random words like “blue” or “scorpio.” He couldn’t remember when he’d last eaten.

He wasn’t necessarily a risk to anyone but himself, but clearly the man needed help. They asked if he’d go to the local hospital if the police drove him. Roswell agreed. But when officers knocked, he politely declined.

At the daughters’ urging, the Mounties went back to check on Roswell two more times. On the third encounter, his erratic behaviour was enough to arrest him.

He was sent to Yarmouth Regional Hospital where a psychiatric unit stay was arranged. After three days Roswell’s admission was changed to voluntary and he was released. The brief time spent in confinement was unproductive.

“I watched a little TV. I interacted some with some of the other patients,” he says. “Mostly I just played mind games with myself and this alien force.”

Nova Scotia’s Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act should not have been the tool used to get him into the hospital, Roswell says. But it was.

The provincial act became law in 2007. A government fact sheet says the legislation applies to those who are a danger to themselves or others or who may deteriorate to the point where they become dangerous.

Rudolph Uher is Canada Research Chair at Dalhousie University’s department of psychiatry. He knows Roswell, having worked with him on some mental health projects. Despite it being uncommon for people to be taken away from their homes, Uher says Roswell’s involuntary confinement was likely for the best.

If a psychiatrist or attending physician thinks treatment is needed for a patient but can’t persuade the person to seek it, he or she may be held. But conditions must include a strong belief that it is unsafe to leave that person untreated.

“I know if I commit someone to involuntary treatment in hospital that person will not like the experience but I also know nothing terrible will happen there,” Uher says. “Whereas the nightmare is, I send him back home and tomorrow he’s dead.”

Roswell still doesn’t agree.

“I think our mental health services system should be focusing more on providing help and assistance to people who are seeking it rather than arresting people who are minding their own business.” Psychosis, he says, is like having a good cry or a good laugh. “It passes.”

He says he had no intention of harming himself. His daughters thought perhaps he would. They worry about him. For now they’ve all agreed to disagree about what happened.

Roswell spends much of his time now working without pay for the advocacy group he founded a few years back. The Digby Clare Mental Health Volunteers Association has no membership list, other than a seven-person executive. Their mission is to promote mental health. They’re organizing a conference on teen mental health for early May.

“The more stories we get in the media about mental health and mental illnesses, even stories that are negative, enhance the dialogue,” Roswell says. “We really have to be open about this.”

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