Helpful Hints about Schizophrenia for Family Members and Others
By Brian Smith, MS
People with schizophrenia often encounter challenges when it comes to their friends and family. Family often try and cope with someone who has schizophrenia for a period of time, but can become frustrated by their seeming lack of progress in treatment or staying in treatment altogether. A family’s emotional support may wane, and some families cut off all contact with their schizophrenic son, daughter or sibling.
Friends can also not understand a person with schizophrenia’s experiences, and quickly lose interest in continuing the friendship when a person with schizophrenia deteriorates or drops out of treatment. The most common complaint amongst friends and family members of a person with schizophrenia is not understanding how to help them, or give them continued, long-term support that help keeps them from becoming homeless or unemployed.
A person’s support system may come from several sources, including the family, a professional residential or day program provider, shelter operators, friends or roommates, professional case managers, churches and synagogues, and others. Because many patients live with their families, the following discussion frequently uses the term “family.” However, this should not be taken to imply that families ought to be the primary support system.
There are numerous situations in which people with schizophrenia may need help from people in their family or community. Often, a person with schizophrenia will resist treatment, believing that delusions or hallucinations are real and that psychiatric help is not required. At times, family or friends may need to take an active role in having them seen and evaluated by a professional.
The issue of civil rights may enter into an attempt to provide treatment to someone with schizophrenia. Laws protecting patients from involuntary commitment have become very strict, and families and community organizations may be frustrated in their efforts to see that a severely mentally ill individual gets needed help. These laws vary from state to state; generally, when people are dangerous to themselves or others due to a mental disorder, the police can assist in getting them an emergency psychiatric evaluation and, if necessary, hospitalization. In some places, staff from a local community mental health center can evaluate an individual’s illness at home if he or she will not voluntarily go in for treatment.
6 Tips to Help Family Members and Friends
1. The closest family member or friend should speak-up and be an advocate for the person with schizophrenia.
Sometimes only the family or others close to the person with schizophrenia will be aware of strange behavior or ideas that the person has expressed. Since patients may not volunteer such information during an examination, family members or friends should ask to speak with the person evaluating the patient so that all relevant information can be taken into account.
2. Ensure ongoing compliance with treatment, especially when released from inpatient care.
Ensuring that a person with schizophrenia continues to get treatment after hospitalization is also important. A patient may discontinue medications or stop going for follow-up treatment, often leading to a return of psychotic symptoms.
3. Offer strong emotional encouragement and support for continuing treatment.
Encouraging the person to continue treatment and assisting him or her in the treatment process can positively influence recovery. Without treatment, some people with schizophrenia become so psychotic and disorganized that they cannot care for their basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. All too often, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia end up on the streets or in jails, where they rarely receive the kinds of treatment they need.
4. Know how to respond to bizarre statements or beliefs.
Those close to people with schizophrenia are often unsure of how to respond when patients make statements that seem strange or are clearly false. For the individual with schizophrenia, the bizarre beliefs or hallucinations seem quite real — they are not just “imaginary fantasies.” Instead of “going along with” a person’s delusions, family members or friends can tell the person that they do not see things the same way or do not agree with his or her conclusions, while acknowledging that things may appear otherwise to the patient.
It is very important not to challenge the person’s beliefs or delusions. They are very “real” to the person who experiences them, and there’s little point in arguing with them about the delusions or false beliefs. Instead, move the conversation along to areas or topics where you both agree upon.
5. Keep a record.
It may also be useful for those who know the person with schizophrenia well to keep a record of what types of symptoms have appeared, what medications (including dosage) have been taken, and what effects various treatments have had. By knowing what symptoms have been present before, family members may know better what to look for in the future. Families may even be able to identify some “early warning signs” of potential relapses, such as increased withdrawal or changes in sleep patterns, even better and earlier than the patients themselves. Thus, return of psychosis may be detected early and treatment may prevent a full-blown relapse. Also, by knowing which medications have helped and which have caused troublesome side effects in the past, the family can help those treating the patient to find the best treatment more quickly.
6. Help the person set attainable, simple goals in his or her life.
In addition to involvement in seeking help, family, friends and peer groups can provide support and encourage the person with schizophrenia to regain his or her abilities. It is important that goals be attainable, since a patient who feels pressured or repeatedly criticized by others will probably experience stress that may lead to a worsening of symptoms. Like anyone else, people with schizophrenia need to know when they are doing things right. A positive approach may be helpful and perhaps more effective in the long run than criticism. This advice applies to everyone who interacts with the person.