JOANNE VERBANIC, MENTAL HEALTH PIONEER, DIES
Joanne Verbanic, founder of Schizophrenics Anonymous, an international self-help group for people with Schizophrenia that is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, died May 7th in Detroit of complications following abdominal surgery. She was 70 years old.
Ms. Verbanic, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia throughout her adult life, put a small ad in a Detroit newspaper in 1984 inviting people burdened with the same illness to meet and talk in a diner in downtown Detroit. Three people came. Today, Schizophrenics Anonymous has peer-support chapters throughout the world and is linked with an umbrella mental health organization called Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America, or SARDAA. Schizophrenics Anonymous’ estimated global membership is thousands.
Stricken with the illness as a young mother, Ms. Verbanic managed to continue working as a financial counselor at Ford Motor Company for more than 20 years following a divorce, despite the constant intervention of internal “voices” that plague so many patients with the disease. Acting alone, she taught herself to ignore the taunting and threatening that comes from internal voices, which are auditory hallucinations and a common symptom of the illness. Her ability to back away from them, almost unheard-of until she pioneered the technique, was a major lesson she passed on to her followers. She never attempted to suggest that she had found a cure for the illness, just a helpful way to manage it.
Ms. Verbanic was also known as a tireless mother-hen to Schizophrenics Anonymous members, taking local and long-distance telephone calls any hour of the day or night in her Detroit home, sitting in on chapter meetings, organizing help for members in trouble, traveling to make speeches and accept awards. Beyond her interest in peer-group work, she was a tireless crusader against the public stigma that attaches to people with mental illness. “Sometimes I think the stigma is worse than the disease,” she told a reporter from Time Magazine.
Ms. Verbanic is survived by her son, Dennis, her brother, Robert Gaynor Jr., sister, Jeanette Christiansen, and her granddaughter, Christina Bowers. She was preceded in death by her son, Douglas, her brothers, Tim and Jim, and her sister, Cindy Fraser.