Schizophrenia is a mental disorder
characterized by gross distortion of reality, language disturbances,
fragmentation of thought and other troubling symptoms. The cost of caring for
schizophrenic patients comes to more than $17 billion per year in this country
-- but this figure can never capture the emotional cost borne by patients and
their families. While schizophrenia is often made worse by stress, it is not
caused by bad parenting, "cold" or over-involved mothers, or any other
known psychological factor. Rather, schizophrenia probably stems from a
combination of genetic factors, biochemical abnormalities in the brain and
perhaps very early damage to the developing fetus. Nevertheless, emotional
stress -- including pressure from well-meaning family members -- can make the
illness worse. What can families do to help their schizophrenic relatives, and
to cope with this devastating illness?
Education is certainly paramount. Many parents still blame
themselves for causing their son's or daughter's illness; others accuse the
afflicted family member of laziness or self-indulgence. This sort of assigning
blame is founded in error, and can make matters worse for the individual with
schizophrenia. For example, when a family member tells the sufferer, "You
don't need those lousy medications! You need to pull yourself together and get
a job!" he or she may mean well, but may actually do more harm than good.
Individuals with schizophrenia virtually always need to take antipsychotic
medication -- they cannot "pull themselves up by their bootstraps"
through an act of will.
You may think holding down a job is too much for someone with schizophrenia. But with treatment, many people can -- and should -- stay in the game.
"People feel better about themselves if they're doing something productive," says Steven Jewell, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University. "It's critical to recovery to move forward with your life, whether it's at school or at work." Jewell advocates a team approach to providing patients the treatment, skills, and support...
On the other hand, babying or coddling a family member with
schizophrenia is also unhelpful. There is a realistic middle ground that can be
reached through family education and support. This can come from mental-health
professionals, mental-health advocacy groups and from patients themselves.
Medication and Job Counseling
Use of the latest "atypical" antipsychotic
medications, such as clozapine (Clozaril) and olanzapine (Zyprexa), has made a
big difference for many individuals with schizophrenia. These newer medications
are better tolerated than older agents like haloperidol (Haldol) and work on a
wider range of symptoms. Families can advocate for the use of these newer
agents, and encourage their loved ones with schizophrenia to take their
medications on a regular basis. But medication is not the whole story.