Caring For a Family Member with Schizoaffective Disorder
Helping someone with schizoaffective disorder can be challenging because of the potential for severe and serious symptoms of psychosis, mania, and depression. Caring for a loved one with this condition requires collaboration with doctors, managing a treatment plan, being prepared for relapses and crisis situations, and helping the patient find a suitable place to live while learning to be more independent.
Caring for someone who is struggling with any mental illness is challenging.
Schizoaffective disorder is one of the more difficult mental health conditions because of such extreme symptoms of psychosis, mania, and depression. It is chronic and will never be cured, and treatment must be ongoing, even when the patient feels well again.
To tend to a family member living with this illness requires dedication, patience, and self-care.
As a caregiver, you need to understand this disease, support your loved one, manage and encourage treatment, look for signs of relapse, respond to crises, and still take care of yourself. It can sometimes be like a full-time job, so finding support for you is also important.
Living with Schizoaffective Disorder
Schizoaffective disorder causes symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or depression. The schizophrenic symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking, unusual behaviors, a flat affect, and inappropriate emotional responses. The mood disorder symptoms may include those of mania, depression, or both: periods of high energy, euphoria, lack of sleep, and risky behaviors for mania and sadness, despair, lack of interest in activities, and low energy for depression.
Living with either schizoaffective bipolar type or depressive type is challenging and can be very disruptive. This is especially true if the condition has gone undiagnosed or untreated, if the patient is not sticking with the treatment plan, or if elements of treatment are not working. Struggling with the symptoms of schizophrenia can make it difficult to impossible to manage normal relationships, to be successful in school, to work, and can even lead to substance abuse or getting in trouble with the law.
Knowing how to deal with schizoaffective disorder is not obvious, but it requires support and this is why family is so important. If you have someone in your family living with this condition, there are many ways in which you can help and care for him or her. From getting the initial diagnosis to managing relapses, a loved one with schizoaffective disorder needs your care.
How to Help Someone with Schizoaffective Disorder – Start with a Diagnosis and Education
The first step in caring for someone affected by this condition is to learn more about it and to ensure that an accurate diagnosis is made. There is no schizoaffective disorder test, but a psychiatrist or other mental health professional can perform a psychiatric evaluation to determine if the diagnostic criteria for the condition are met. From a diagnosis, a schizoaffective disorder treatment plan can be developed that includes medication, therapy, and self-management strategies.
In addition to getting the diagnosis, you need to learn more about this condition, as does your loved one. Read up on bipolar schizoaffective disorder, schizoaffective disorder depression type, how each type is treated, what to do when treatments don’t seem to work, how to manage relapses, and the kind of support your loved one will need going forward. As you set off on this challenging journey, there are some important things to keep in mind:
- Be realistic about outcomes. This is a difficult mental illness, so be prepared for setbacks. Set small, reasonable goals and expect to take progress slowly, bit by bit.
- Empower your family member. It may be tempting to start doing everything for your loved one with a mental illness, but it is important that you help him or her recover the ability to be as independent as possible.
- Rely on support. You can’t always go it alone and neither can your loved one. Find support for both of you.
- Manage and reduce stress. Someone with schizoaffective disorder is sensitive to stress, which can cause symptoms to flare up. Create an environment that is structured but as stress-free as is reasonable to help your loved one heal.
Managing a Schizoaffective Treatment Plan
As a caregiver, it is important for you to take an active role in developing and managing the treatment plan. Along with your family member, discuss with the doctor what will be involved, what medications will be used, recommended types of therapy, and any goals for self-management. Treatment is so important and your loved one will need your help with it, especially in the early stages. Simply getting someone with schizoaffective disorder to start treatment can be challenging, as they may not be aware that anything is wrong or simply may be resistant to using medications or meeting with a therapist. Here are some ways you can help make treatment go more smoothly:
- Try focusing on symptoms rather than on “having a mental illness.” Talk to your loved one about getting treatment for fatigue, for instance. This can make him or her more receptive.
- Treat your loved one as a collaborator in treatment. Engage your family member in the discussions about treatments. This is empowering.
- Give the patient some measure of control by offering options, such as one-on-one therapy versus group or family sessions.
- Take advantage of lucid periods between episodes of symptoms. Between episodes your loved one will likely be more receptive to the idea of treatment.
Managing Schizoaffective Disorder Medications
All elements used together will make for the most effective treatment for your loved one, but regular, uninterrupted use of medications is crucial. Monitor and manage the antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, or antidepressants that the patient has been prescribed and make sure the right doses are taken at the right times. Watch out for side effects too, and take these seriously, reporting them to the doctor right away. Side effects should not be severe, but if they are a new medication may be needed.
A useful way to manage medications, and treatment in general, is to keep a journal. Record the use of medications, attendance at therapy and schizoaffective support groups, and other elements of treatment as well as how the patient’s symptoms respond. Record any setbacks, side effects, relapses, or any factors that seem to trigger or worsen symptoms
Watch out for Relapses
If everything goes according to plan, your loved one will start to feel better. This is a positive development, but be aware that relapses are not only possible, they are likely. Make sure your family member keeps up with treatment and watch out for early signs of a relapse:
- Sleeping less
- Letting personal hygiene slide
- Showing signs of paranoia
- Aggressive or hostile behaviors or reactions
- Disappearing for periods of time
- Withdrawing socially
- Confusing speech
If you begin to notice some of these signs, check on the status of treatment, make sure the patient is still taking medications and going to therapy, and talk to your loved one’s doctor.
Be Ready for the Worst – Preparing for a Crisis
No matter how well things are going, with a serious mental illness like schizoaffective disorder there is always a possibility that a patient will have a rapid setback. This can lead to severe psychosis that may require hospitalization or even lead to suicidal behaviors. Make sure you always have an emergency plan, including contact information for doctors or therapists who can be reached at any time of day, a chosen hospital for psychiatric admission, and family members who are willing to step in and assist in an emergency.
Make Long-Term Plans
The ultimate goal for your loved one should be maximum wellness and independence, and a big part of that is planning for the future. If your family member is not in a position to live independently, and may not be for a while, you need to make plans for where he or she will live to receive the best care and support. Living with family may be an option, but only if the patient is willing to and has access to regular treatment and can mostly live independently with some support.
If he or she still struggles a lot, and a family situation is not ideal, there are other housing options. Housing facilities for people learning to live with serious mental illness include group homes and transitional homes, which prepare them to live more independently. There are also supervised residential facilities, typically apartments, where residents have on-site support. Another option is a residential treatment center with 24-hour mental health care.
Schizoaffective disorder is an illness that impacts many lives and that requires regular treatment and support, even between episodes of symptoms. If you find yourself in the position of caring for someone with this condition, get support for yourself as well. You can only do the best for your loved one if you are taking care of yourself. By managing treatment, getting crisis help when needed, and generally supporting your family member, you can help him or her to be able to live a normal life again.