Caring for a Person With a Mental Illness
Caregivers of people with mental illness face a life of drama and journeys into new places they never thought they would experience.
Life takes many expected turns for caregivers such as:
- Sitting at a kitchen table with police at 2:00 am and explaining to them that their mentally ill daughter called 911 because she was having a panic attack, and not because she was being hurt by her parents
- Going to court for the first time because their impulsive loved one was caught shoplifting
- Overhearing their son talking in the living room and realizing that no other people are there
- Being embarrassed at family gatherings or when out in public by their loved one’s bizarre dress and behavior
- Feeling hurt when their paranoid, delusional son accuses them of being enemies who want to harm him
- Constantly having to reassure their loved ones that their co-workers are not out to get them
- Be awakened at all hours by their loved one’s noisy psychotic episodes
- Constantly trying to encourage their depressed loved one to believe that she is loved and should not to commit suicide
- Finding their loved one unconscious on the floor because he stopped taking his powerful medication cold turkey and taking him to a hospital emergency department
When a loved one is physically injured, say in a car accident, the family will openly share their loved one’s condition with family, friends, and co-workers. Religious people may ask their congregations to pray for them. When loved ones are diagnosed with a mental illness, however, caregivers will probably keep their condition a secret. Caregivers may feel shame and fear being “found out.”
Other caregivers may not feel ashamed of their loved one’s condition, but will keep the secret because they fear that their loved ones will be treated badly by others. Caregivers may fear that their loved ones will be ostracized, negatively labeled, or bullied. Unfortunately this stigma may also hold back people with mental illness from seeking treatment
How caregivers can help loved ones with mental illness
Learn about the diagnosis: Caregivers should learn more about the diagnosis, the symptoms of the mental illness, and gather information about medications and their side effects. Sometimes people with mental illness depend on their caregivers to oversee their medication and treatment. Their caregivers can empower their loved ones by encouraging them to also become educated about their condition and to take an active part in their treatment team.
Be patient with loved ones and the treatment process When loved ones are first diagnosed with mental illness, they may feel frightened and confused. Others may go into denial and refuse to accept their condition. It may take some time before loved ones can deal with their diagnosis and are willing to seek treatment.
People with mental illness will go through a transition period where they struggle with their new identity as a person with a mental illness. Caregivers can help on this journey by encouraging their loved ones to believe that they are still valued as people and should not define themselves by their mental illness.
Caregivers must also be patient during the treatment process. It will take a while before medical professionals can determine the most effective medications and correct dosages.
Accept people with mental illness for who they are: Being a caregiver of someone who is mentally ill is really tough, especially when the person is psychotic and paranoid.
Sadly, some serious mental disorders cause paranoia and delusions that drive people with mental illness to accuse their caregivers of trying to harm them. This can be heartbreaking for caregivers who sincerely love them and care about their welfare.
There are other symptoms that can be disturbing for caregivers such as erratic mood swings, impulsive behavior, and deep depression. Stress can also trigger or escalate the symptoms of mental illness.
Caregivers also go through an emotional journey when their loved one is first diagnosed with a mental illness. They may go through a grieving process where they need to let go their images of the person they used to know, and accept that a new person has emerged who happens to have a mental illness. Mentally ill people need love and acceptance on the difficult road to recovery.
Provide social and emotional support: There are times when loved ones with mental illness need to express their feelings. Caregivers need to listen carefully and not dismiss what they are saying, even though what they are saying may not seem to make sense. People with mental illness struggle with self-esteem issues, and some isolate themselves from other people. Caregivers are an important source of emotional support and social contact. Loved ones can also be encouraged to make contributions to society that will raise their sense of self-worth.
This support however, should not become a crutch for loved ones with mental illness. Caregivers need to help them to become independent and make their own choices.
Offer to accompany loved ones to appointments: Caregivers can offer to come to medical and other appointments with their loved ones and to discuss medication and side effects with the treatment team. Sometimes, caregivers must act as advocates for their mentally ill loved ones. If the loved ones say no, their caregivers need to respect that decision.
Watch for medication side effects: The National Mental Health Association recommends that caregivers help loved ones on antipsychotic drugs to fill out the Antipsychotic Side Effects checklist on their website at nmha.org and bring it to their next doctor’s appointment.
Medical professionals need to be informed if medications are causing troubling side effects or don’t seem to be working.
Respect the person's right to privacy: Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and has the right to privacy. Caregivers must resist the temptation to become constantly rescuing them from the consequences of their actions, or become overly involved and overprotective of their loved ones.
Dealing with negative comments about mental illness
Acknowledge that you have heard what the person has said and correct them in a non-judgmental and non-threatening manner
Ignore the comment: some people just won’t listen and trying to correct them is a waste of time
Educate them: Many people are ignorant about mental illness, but are open to learning more about it. For example, many people confuse multiple personality disorder with schizophrenia. Sometimes, ignorant comments can be an opportunity to educate someone. Caregivers can explain that schizophrenia is a chemical imbalance in the brain that cause people to hear voices, behave strangely, and have difficulty distinguishing delusions and reality. Caregivers should be careful to share the information in a non-threatening, logical way with scientific information, or as a personal story. This assures the people making the comments that they are not being attacked or put down for their ignorance.
Self-care suggestions for caregivers
- Connect with groups that can provide information and help. There are a number of organizations that not only provide emotional help, they can also help people with mental illness to apply for disability benefits, or navigate the court system when they are in trouble with the law
- Seek emotional support from family, friends, and people who are in similar circumstances
- Prepare for the unexpected and keep helpful phone numbers handy, such as doctor’s numbers, and related hotlines
- If loved one adults are not working, encourage them to become involved in the many social and life skills training programs that are available through mental health organizations
- Take breaks from caregiving
- Be alert for signs of burnout and address them
© Carola Finch 2016