Caring for a Parent with Schizophrenia: Top 3 Tips for Balancing Support With Self-Care
Growing up with a parent with schizophrenia can have a profound impact on how you see yourself and the world around you. The challenges faced by the adult children of people with schizophrenia are myriad, but by educating yourself, seeking support for yourself, and finding treatment for you parent, you can create new paths toward healing and realize that you are not alone.
When Virginia Holman was seven years old, her mother began preparing for war. “One day she packed up, drove us to a summer cottage we owned in a remote corner of the Virginia peninsula , and started setting up a MASH unit for the wounded,” Virginia writes. “She painted the windows black and amassed first-aid supplies. At night, she believed she was flying airplanes loaded with plasma for the injured.”
In a way, she wasn’t wrong. She was at war, but the war was within herself. For six years that war raged as she refused again and again to seek treatment. It was only when her husband finally convinced her to go to the hospital to “prove that the government really had implanted electrodes in her brain” that the war finally got a name: schizophrenia.
Like many children who have parent with schizophrenia, Virginia began to fear that there was a time bomb inside her, one that could go off at any moment and leave the disorder to invade in its wake. She blamed her mother for her illness, believing that “if she had been stronger, tried harder, she wouldn’t have gotten sick.” Her mother’s illness informed how she thought, how she behaved, how she looked, even whom she trusted. “I worked to swallow my emotions. I was operating my under own delusion: If I acted strong enough, I could avoid schizophrenia.”
Of course, the truth is that schizophrenia is not a result of weakness or a fault in character. It is a disease of the brain, one that requires compassionate support to cope with—and if you, like Virginia, are the child of a parent with schizophrenia, you are one of the most important potential sources of the very love and understanding your parent needs in order to heal.
The Challenges of Having a Parent with Schizophrenia
As a child of a parent with schizophrenia, it is likely that you were profoundly affected by your experience of growing up with a sick parent. Now, as an adult, you are not only left grappling with the wounds the illness inflicted during your formative years, but you must now negotiate the complex dynamics of being the adult child of someone with a severe mental health disorder.
Learning how to balance support with self-care can be a challenging process that can drain your emotional resources and leave you feeling disoriented and isolated, particularly if your parent’s illness remains untreated. But you are not alone in your struggle, and with the right resources you can find the support that you need to nurture both yourself and your parent. Using the following three tips, you can start to formulate a plan for moving toward a healthier future for both of you.
1. Educate Yourself
When you grow up with a parent with schizophrenia, it’s easy to feel as if you know everything you need to know about the disorder. When you’ve spent your life witnessing the embodiment of the illness firsthand, what could someone possibly tell you that you don’t already know?
The truth is that even people who living in the presence of mental illness sometimes don’t fully understand what their loved one is experiencing, particularly when their observations are clouded by their own complicated emotional reactions to their parents’ symptoms. By learning more about schizophrenia with the help of experts, you can come to more fully understand how the illness functions and develop a more accurate perception of your parent’s experience as well as your own. This can be essential to cutting through the anger, shame, fear, and sadness that is so common amongst children of schizophrenic parents. It also gives you an opportunity to identify what both of you truly need in order to heal.
For instance, many children of parents with schizophrenia experience anger and frustration if their parent refuses to take medication, seeing non-adherence as a sign that the parents doesn’t care enough about them try to get better. However, in many cases, non-adherence arises out of a condition called anosognosia, or “lack of insight”, a neurological deficit that prevents people from recognizing that they are ill. About 50% of people with schizophrenia experience anosognosia, often resulting in treatment refusal. By understanding that nonadherence is the product of the illness itself—not a comment on the quality of your parents’ love for you—you can let go of blame, identify the true source of the problem, and work toward resolution.
2. Seek Support for Yourself
Having a parent with schizophrenia can have a profound impact on your sense of self and your place in the world, deeply influencing your emotions, beliefs, behaviors, and relationships. As Herbert, Manjula, and Philip write:
[Children with mentally ill parents] tend to have social deficits characterized by emotional instability, aggressiveness, and social isolation, difficulties in work, marriage, and struggle with issues related to poor self-esteem, and social adjustment. Studies showed that […] they reported having inadequate parenting, excessive care giving to the mentally ill parents, stigma, and lack of support from others.
At the same time, having a parent with schizophrenia heightens the risk of developing a mental illness yourself; according to some preliminary estimates, children of parents with schizophrenia have a 50% chance of developing a mental health disorder in their lifetime, although most will not develop schizophrenia specifically. If you have one parent who has schizophrenia, your chance of developing the illness yourself is 12%. That number jumps to 39% if you have two parents with schizophrenia. Research shows also shows a strong correlation between schizophrenia and substance abuse. While there is no conclusive evidence that substance abuse can cause schizophrenia, it may be particularly dangerous for people with increased risk of schizophrenia, such as children of people with the illness, to abuse drugs and alcohol.
It is essential to seek out a support network for yourself in order to cope with the effects of having a parent with schizophrenia, help you process and heal from your experiences, and address any mental health issues you may be experiencing yourself. Ideally, this support network should include a therapist with experience working with the adult children of people with schizophrenia.
You may also wish to seek out a support group designed specifically for people in your situation to benefit from the guidance and understanding of peers who have been where you are, free from stigma and shame. This not only helps you to cope with the effect your parent’s illness has had on your life, it also allows you to better support them in the future while keeping yourself safe.
3. Find Help for Your Parent
Today there are more treatment options available for schizophrenia than ever before, including pharmacological, psychotherapeutic, holistic, and experiential modalities that can open up the door to profound transformation. Helping your parent connect to caring and compassionate treatment providers can be a vital step toward finding resolution to psychiatric distress.
However, if your parent has failed to respond to various forms of treatment over the years there it may seem like there are few places to turn. Indeed, the outpatient therapy, hospitalizations, and short-term residential treatment programs that your parent has cycled in and out of may not offer them the kind or quality of care they need to make progress toward a more stable and independent life. In these cases, long-term residential treatment may be the best option. Long-term residential care facilities can offer the structure and therapies necessary to help your parent gain the skills necessary to effective manage their illness and their life. By engaging in a comprehensive array of therapies within a therapeutic community, they can come to develop the emotional and behavioral regulation they need to minimize symptoms and augment self-sufficiency.
Because schizophrenia affects the entire family, it is essential to find a long-term treatment program that will work with your family to support you individually and collectively and give you a safe space to heal. Through family therapy, psychoeducation, and family support groups, you can participate in your parent’s care while simultaneously addressing your own unique challenges and working to resolve painful conflicts. You will also be a part of continuing care planning to ensure that the gains you and your parent have made in treatment are preserved once residential care is complete.
You Are Not Alone
Having a parent with schizophrenia can be an isolating, sad, frustrating, and disorienting experience. However, there are resources out there to help you both understand and cope with the impact of mental illness and create a strong foundation for ongoing wellness. Don’t be afraid to reach out to ask for support; there is a community of people who have been where you are and who can give you the guidance you need to move forward with love, compassion, and dignity.
“A strange thing happened,” writes Virginia:
I turned 32, the same age my mother was when she fell ill. Then, still healthy, I turned 33. With a huge sense of relief, I began to realize that I probably wasn’t going to develop schizophrenia. And I realized something else—that my stoic act wasn’t just an act. Beneath the armor I’d worn for so long out of fear, I truly was strong.
Hanbleceya offers comprehensive, long-term residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Diego-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.
Lead image source: Unsplash user Sebastian Tiplea