Giving support to a family member or friend with schizophrenia means helping them get the medical and psychological treatment they need. But it also means taking care of yourself at the same time.
Use these suggestions to make an action plan that works for both of you.
Schizophrenia is a difficult mental illness to understand. So learn as much as you can. The more information you have, the better prepared you will be to deal with it.
You’ll also be better able to support your friend or family member who has schizophrenia. And that can boost the odds that they will stick with their treatment, even when things get tough.
A doctor will set up a wellness plan with your loved one that will include specific goals. If you’re not sure who to call to get treatment started, try your family doctor, who may refer you to a psychiatrist.
Your job as a caregiver is to remind your loved one how important it is to stick to their goals, and to encourage them to stay on their medication. They need to follow their treatment plan to help prevent the disease from coming back and keep their symptoms from getting worse.
Keep Track of Details
Go to all doctor appointments with your loved one. It will make it easier for you to help them with their treatment plan. Ask their doctor as many questions as you need, and keep details. Remember: The doctor is there to help both of you.
Also, take notes to every appointment. Some things to include are:
Join Support Groups
Encourage your family member or friend to join a group, and make sure they get to the meetings. In these support groups, they will be among other people with schizophrenia who will share their experiences. It may help them feel less alone.
The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA) and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offer support.
Learn How to Manage Stress
Learn How to Respond
When someone with schizophrenia has hallucinations (hears or sees things that aren’t there) or delusions (believes things that aren’t true, even when they get proof that they’re false), they believe they are real. It doesn’t help them to challenge their beliefs by saying they’re not.
Instead, tell them that you each see things in your own way. Be respectful, kind, and supportive, and call their doctor if needed.
If they are acting out hallucinations, stay calm, call 911, and tell the dispatcher they have schizophrenia. While you wait for paramedics, don’t argue, shout, criticize, threaten, block the doorway, touch them, or stand over them. Also avoid direct eye contact, which could make them feel threatened.
Be Ready to Respond
If a person with schizophrenia has a psychotic episode, which means their hallucinations or delusions become a lot worse and more severe, you need to size up the situation quickly and decide who to call. If another person is available, ask them to stay with your loved one while you contact the doctor or call 911.
If your loved one threatens suicide, don’t leave them alone. If their behavior becomes dangerous, immediately call 911 and ask for police. Tell them they have schizophrenia and explain the situation, but let them handle it. Police should be trained to evaluate and manage people with psychotic disorders and other types of emotional distress. Call their doctor to let them know what’s going on as well.
On your smartphone, you can also download the Psychiatric Crisis Resources Kit app (from the Treatment Advocacy Center). It has state-specific standards on emergency hospitalization and can be useful in a crisis.
Know the Signs of Suicide
Most people with schizophrenia are harmless to others. They’re more likely to hurt themselves than anybody else. Sometimes that includes trying to take their own life. You should take any suicidal talk seriously, and pay attention to poems, notes, or any other things your loved one creates that are about death.
Also, be suspicious if they suddenly go from depressed to cheerful. This change could mean they are thinking about suicide. For help on the spot, call your doctor and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Stay in Touch
When a person with schizophrenia feels alone, their suicidal thoughts may increase. If you don’t live close by, you can help by staying in touch via telephone, text, email, and mail. Sending short notes like postcards and greeting cards can remind them how much you care.
Take Care of Yourself
It can be draining to look after someone with schizophrenia. You need to make nurturing yourself a top priority every day. It’s common for caregivers to feel sad, angry, alone, or afraid of what others will think.
Reach out to friends and family, and tell them what you need. They can:
- Listen to you without judging you
- Find information and doctors
- Share hopeful stories, moral support, and spiritual guidance
- Offer financial assistance
- Do your housework and babysit your kids
Most of all, eat well, get enough sleep, exercise, and take part in fun activities. You can’t be “on call” 24 hours a day. So schedule guilt-free vacations and give yourself a complete break from time to time.
Learn About the Stigma of Mental Illness
Families of people who have a mental illness can take certain steps to cope with it:
- Remember that you and your loved ones have choices. Mental and physical illnesses are private, personal information. You can decide who to tell about the mental illness and what to tell them.
- Remember that you are not alone. Mental health problems can be more common than you might think. One in four people in the United States has some form of mental illness at some point in their lives. Many other people cope with similar situations. People commonly struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders.
- Stay hopeful, and remember that treatment works. Safe and effective medications and psychosocial treatments are available, and newer treatments are being developed. As a result, many people who have a mental illness enjoy productive lives.
- Praise your loved one for seeking help. Mental health treatment can be difficult, as people often need to be patient in trying new medications, coping with side effects, and learning new behaviors. Helping your loved one to feel good about them or themselves is important.
- Stay active, and surround yourself with supportive people. Social isolation can be a negative side effect of the stigma linked to mental illness. Isolating yourself and not doing the things you enjoy put you at high risk for depression and burnout. Take a risk, and try new activities in your community.