Helping a Family Member With Schizophrenia: Long-Term Support and Treatment
Schizophrenia poses unique challenges for those diagnosed with it and their family members alike, and coping with those challenges can, at times, be overwhelming. Learning to understand and accept your loved one’s schizophrenia and developing healthy, productive coping mechanisms will enable you to better support their needs along with your own. And, by seeking professional care in a long-term residential mental health facility, you will be able to work together toward a brighter future, both individually and as a family.
As Tamara Sale, whose older brother Glenn first began showing signs of developing schizophrenia in the 1970s, relates, “Psychosis was a sort of earthquake in our reality. Just like with a major earthquake you find yourself not trusting the earth you’re walking on, the same is true for psychosis, both for the person who experiences it and for the people close to them.”
But just as those diagnosed can now work towards building a better future for themselves, so too can you learn to cope more effectively with a family member’s schizophrenia. How? By crafting a more comprehensive understanding of the disorder and your loved one’s needs through education, communication, and seeking proper treatment.
The Importance of Understanding and Accepting Your Loved One’s Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia can be an unsettling and sometimes frightening disorder, both to experience and to witness. Once, as Tamara recalls, “Glenn went into his room and spent hours destroying his belongings, including his treasured collection of every single Beatles album. On another night, Barbara [their mother] came home to find Glenn sitting on the floor of the dining room. He’d carved a cross into the wall with a knife, and wouldn’t respond when she spoke to him.”
Regardless of the severity of their symptomatology, it can be disturbing to see someone you care deeply about behaving bizarrely and out of character. It is important to remember that schizophrenia, like any mental illness, is essentially a brain disease, a “circuit disorder” that may affect their (and your) life and behavior in big ways but does not define who they are as a person. As Michael Hendricks, who has lived with schizophrenia for over a decade, writes for Psychology Today,
In essence your brain is just a part of your body, think of it like your arm, if you have a cut on your arm you put a band-aid on it and take care of it. You wouldn’t tell yourself that you are now a cut simply because of your arm … It’s something you take care of, it’s not you. You are not schizophrenia.
It can be difficult to see past your loved one’s disorder and the stress it may have introduced into your life, but the unique bond you share with them as a member of their family gives you greater potential than anyone else to help them find stability in the midst of their disorder. By keeping an open mind and making an effort to understand what it is they are going through, you can empathize more fully with their struggles and handle even tough situations with compassion and grace.
Supporting a Family Member with Schizophrenia
As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Cultivating a thorough understanding of basic best practices for supporting someone with schizophrenia, when coupled with the strength and depth of a family bond, will provide you with the solid foundation you need to build a life in which both you and your loved one can thrive.
Moving Past Shame and Guilt
Simply receiving an official diagnosis can have a significant emotional impact, thanks to the stigmas surrounding psychotic disorders that still permeate modern society. As a relation of someone with schizophrenia, you may feel shame about your connection, guilt, frustration, and even fear that you, too, will develop the disorder—despite the fact that, while genetics do appear to factor into the development of schizophrenia, your shared genes do not guarantee that you are, or will ever become, schizophrenic.
Know that these feelings are understandable. You are only human, after all. Know, too, that you can move past them to a place of empathy and understanding, and that doing so is in your loved one’s—and your own—best interests. Rather than getting caught in a vicious cycle of negative feelings and guilt over feeling them, try to accept that such feelings are natural, recognize that they are not conducive to healing, and work to let them go without self-judgment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, along with mindfulness and meditation training, can go a long way towards helping you reframe your thinking to adopt a more positive outlook. Be sure to also check out NAMI’s StigmaFree campaign, which combines education and activism in a strong effort to eliminate stigma and promote compassion for, and understanding of, those who suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
Setting Realistic Goals and Expectations
Stress is often a precipitating factor for psychotic episodes. Not only can undue stress exacerbate the symptoms of schizophrenia, it may worsen the effects of co-occurring addictions or disorders (which are all too common) as well. This is doubly true for those whose addiction is currently active, as substance abuse impairs one’s ability to manage schizophrenia symptoms and adhere to any medications they may already be taking. Unrealistic goals, such as the expectation that your loved one will get better “soon” or be “cured” in just a matter of time, place an undue burden of stress on you both. This can create feelings of disappointment, negative self-worth, and even resentment, all of which are antithetical to the healing process.
While an optimistic outlook can be a powerful motivational tool, it’s important to also be aware of the reality of your loved one’s prognosis. As News Medical reports,
There is currently no known cure for schizophrenia and a full recovery from schizophrenia is unusual, with only approximately 15% returning to previous functioning capabilities. However, most individuals with the condition are able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, in the presence or absence of symptoms.
Schizophrenia may be a fixture in your lives for many years to come, but it doesn’t have to be a roadblock. Setting practical targets and expectations by breaking down vague, sweeping goals—like “recovering” or “getting well”—into tangible, manageable milestones can help you and your loved one make incremental progress towards healing together.
Building a Support Network
Support is a critical piece of the mental health puzzle; having a support system in place for you and your loved one can prevent or reduce the sense of isolation (and resultant depression) that so often accompanies schizophrenia. Support groups provide a safe, nonjudgmental space in which to connect with others who can relate to their experiences, while informal social support from family and friends lets them know that they are not alone, and that they are loved regardless of their disorder.
Most importantly (for both of you), make sure that you are not your loved one’s sole pillar of support. While family support can play a critical role in the healing process, such support is difficult to provide when you’re feeling overwhelmed and lack a support network of your own. Make an effort to keep in touch with relatives and friends who can help you maintain a healthy perspective on the situation and will look out for you and your wellbeing. You may also want to seek out a support group of your own.
Professional help, both for you and your loved one, is highly recommended. Research shows that identifying and treating schizophrenia as early as possible can greatly improve treatment efficacy and outcomes, and family therapy and support (such as that offered by NAMI) can help address both your loved one’s disorder as well as how you and the rest of your family cope with it.
Regaining Balance and Perspective Through Long-Term Residential Treatment
Of course, where you seek treatment can be as vital to ensuring long-term success as when you seek it. When it comes to severe psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, the best option is to find a long-term residential treatment facility that can comprehensively treat your loved one’s illness.
Look for a program that offers multiple levels of intensive treatment options and an array of modalities that can be tailored to your family’s unique needs over time. Look especially for modalities that have been proven to be effective in treating schizophrenia, including social therapies like milieu therapy and group therapy, art or music therapy, and family therapy. As Hanbleceya’s Dr. Karlyn Pleasants asserts,
For change to really take place and last, change and adjustment has to happen across the entire family system. My experience over the past 20 years has been that families who are very involved, who attend their sessions and do the work, are the families who get better and whose change endures.
A long-term residential treatment facility can provide an unparalleled quantity and quality of time, resources, and care, giving you and your loved one the space and support you need to work together to grow, heal, and live fuller, healthier, more balanced lives—both individually and as a family.
Hanbleceya offers comprehensive care for people living with severe mental health illness as well as co-occurring substance abuse disorders. Contact us today to learn more about our innovative therapy programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.
Lead image source: Unsplash user Jenelle Ball