Each year millions of Canadians are diagnosed with mental illness. Family members commonly feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness and anxiety and may secretly blame themselves for the mental illness, believing that something they did caused it. Since family members are often the key to successful intervention, helping them cope is crucial to helping those with mental illness. Here are some steps to follow.
1 Learn about the mental illness. Learn about the type of mental illness that affects your family member. Know its warning signs at onset, as well as the signs of relapse, so you can act quickly if intervention becomes necessary. Explore treatment options and discuss them with your loved one’s doctors. Research and understand the kinds of behaviors your relative may display and how to deal with them. There are many websites that offer credible information, but scrutinize the ones you find.
2 Avoid falling into the traps of shame and isolation. Reach out for support and a listening ear. There are support groups for both the ill person and family members. If necessary, find a psychologist or psychiatrist who can counsel family members. Avoid overprotecting your family member from the stigma of mental illness. The stigma is fast disappearing, and new medications for mental disorders are continually developed. There is no shame in mental illness, only in delaying or avoiding treatment.
3 Be hopeful, but realistic. Many people with mental illness are capable of holding fulltime, responsible jobs with the aid of proper medication and support. Even if hospitalization for a period of time is necessary, this should not preclude continuing with normal life after discharge. If the mentally ill person can-not participate in regular activities, an adult day care center or assisted living home may be an appropriate placement.
4 Don’t ignore the needs of children. Although mental illness should not be the focal point in your family, share information with them that is suitable to their age levels and will reduce fear and anxiety. Be very diligent in monitoring children’s needs to make sure they receive proper care and attention. Inform the children’s teachers about the situation, so they can observe the child’s behavior and provide extra support and reassurance. Children also need time away from the mentally ill person, apart from school hours, to relax and participate in enjoy-able activities. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and parents of friends can be very helpful in providing time away.
5 Understand the patient’s responsibility in recovery. A key principal in mental health treatment is for patients to take personal responsibility for managing their illness. This includes medication compliance. However, never assume that the patient is acting responsibly. There must be a system in place that is used to confirm that medications are taken and doctors’ orders followed.
6 Take care of yourself! Maintain balance in your own life. Family members often suffer from lack of sleep, poor nutrition, little exercise, no fun, and stress. Self-help resources can help you draw a balance between caring for the ill person and taking care of yourself. Respite caregivers are available to give you some free time. You can find this help in your community.
Since family members are the key to successful care of the mentally ill, find information and resources to guide and support you. Be sure to take good care of your own physical and mental health, and call on resources to support you. You have a special role, and deserve all the support you can get.