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Mental Illness Guide: Care, Support, and Education
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How can I be involved in my relative’s treatments?

There are a number of ways that you can take an active role in your relative’s treatment.  Below, we list ways family members can get involved.

1.      Give support to the person with mental illness

If you have a family member with mental illness, you are probably wondering what you can do to help.  There are many ways you can help someone close to you as they deal with a mental illness, move around the treatment system and work towards recovery.  As in any relationship, emotional and practical support is always needed.

Knowing when and how to give support, and stay involved, is not always easy.  Remember that helping your family member learn to handle their own affairs, meet goals and stand on their own are important parts of recovery from mental illness.

2.      Be aware of medication issues

Many people with mental illness take some type of medication to help control their symptoms.  For people with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, this may involve taking antipsychotic medications.  These medications have improved a lot over the past ten years.  But they can also cause side effects that lead to other problems and may even make your family member feel worse.  As a result, your family member may decide to stop taking the medications.  

People with schizophrenia may not feel comfortable talking with others about symptoms, feelings or medication side effects, and may only want to talk to their doctors.   You may be able to help your family member develop a better relationship with their treatment team, which can make a big difference in helping with recovery.

3.  Let the mental health workers know how the medications are working

Telling the mental health workers how the person with mental illness responds to the medication is a very useful role for family members.  Your ill relative and the family should watch and write down behavior, symptoms and the days and times when medications are taken.  This information can be a lot of help to the doctor.  The person with mental illness and the family member may both notice different things that are very important.  So each should write down separately what they noticed and give this information to the doctor.

4.      Watch for signs that your relative is getting sick again

Families may notice there are signs that mean their relative with mental illness is going to get sick again.  Different people with mental illness will have different signs.  These signs may be the same as those that occurred right before the first illness.  Some of the common signs are:

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Not sleeping.

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Staying alone a lot.

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Forgetting to shower, or comb hair, or brush teeth.

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Smoking more cigarettes than usual or stopping smoking.

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Saying things that do not seem to make sense.

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Listening to loud music, usually with headphones, to try to drown out voices that only they can hear.

REMEMBER, EACH PERSON IS DIFFERENT.  You need to try to watch for warning signs that might have appeared in the past before your relative got sick.  If you see any of these signs, or any other signs that might mean your relative is getting sick again, call their doctor immediately.

Things you can do:  Preventive actions

Here are things you can do before your relative gets sick again to try to prevent him/her getting sick, or to lessen the severity if he/she does get sick.

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Develop a “signs of relapse” list with your relative based on past signs that have meant the illness is coming back.

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Develop a “strategies” list with your relative, as some do to help themselves get through the bad times.

If families understand a little about the warning signs of mental illness, they can help to prevent the person with mental illness from getting sick again.  If you start to sense that your relative is not taking his/her medications, you can try to make sure that he/she does.  If he/she start to sleep all day and stay up all night, you can help him/her adjust their sleeping schedule.  If the person starts to spend too much time alone, you can draw him/her closer into the family unit.  You can make sure the person eats with the family, or the family can play board games as a unit.  Reacting to some of the early warning signs can sometimes be enough to keep your relative from slipping into serious illness.

Things you can do if illness occurs: Develop a plan

Here are things you can do to prepare in the event that your relative does get sick.

Develop a “plan” with your relative for actions to be taken if they start getting sick again.  Show this plan to the doctor.  A plan could range from taking the relative to the hospital for help to calling the doctor for an immediate appointment.  Sometimes the cause for the illness starting to come back can be dealt with very easily.  Medications can be adjusted by the doctor.  A brief hospital stay can be arranged.  More support can be found.

Many of the people with schizophrenia who have learned how to cope with their illness know how to watch for signs.  When they think they are getting sick again, they call their doctors.  Some have even learned to phone the police when they feel they are getting sick.

5.      Support strategies

Here are some tips on how to support someone with mental illness who is close to you.

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Educate yourself about the diagnosis, symptoms of the illness and side effects from medications.

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Remember that your family member may be scared and confused after receiving a diagnosis.  A diagnosis of schizophrenia can bring on very stressful feelings.

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Encourage your family member to play an active part with the treatment team and to learn about what treatments and services will help with recovery.

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Understand that it may take time for your family member to find the proper medications and dosages that work.

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Understand that there is more to recovery than just “staying on medications.”  Self-esteem and social support are big parts of the recovery process.

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Encourage your family member to speak to his/erh healthcare provider immediately about any problems that he/she have with medications.

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Offer to go with your family member to medical and other appointments.  If he/she wants you to, discuss medication and side effects with the doctor and treatment team.