If you're a caregiver for a loved one with schizophrenia, you already know how to be caring and giving toward someone else. But who takes good care of you?
Being a caregiver is undeniably a tough job. In a 2008 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly two-thirds of schizophrenia caregivers said they had trouble finding time for themselves. Half said they had sometimes felt taken advantage of by their loved one with schizophrenia. And many also reported feeling lonely, isolated, worried, and burned out.
Lightening the Load
Yet this hard job can get easier. In a three-year study from Italy, caregivers for people with schizophrenia actually reported feeling a little less distressed and burdened as time went on. Their "secret": During the study period, their loved ones were being treated at a mental health center that offered lots of support and education for families. The center also provided an array of treatments to their loved ones, so the caregivers had less to worry about.
That's the ideal. In the real world, you might not have access to a model program. But you can still make the best use of whatever services are available. And you can also inform yourself and build up your own support network. You'll be happier and healthier—and ultimately better equipped to help your loved one—if you use your skills to take care of yourself, too.
Top Tips for Caregivers
Be realistic about what you expect, both from yourself and from your loved one. When you're a caregiver for someone with schizophrenia, difficulties come with the territory. If you accept the illness and its challenges, you may be better equipped to cope.
Here are some common problems along with suggested strategies for handling them:
Your loved one resists getting treatment.
Many people with schizophrenia are reluctant to seek treatment. To them, the spies around every corner or voices in their head are very real. They may also be worried about being labeled "crazy." In either case, you can make the first doctor's visit seem less intimidating by focusing on a less touchy symptom, such as lack of energy, sleep problems, anxiety, or depression.
The person with schizophrenia makes bizarre statements.
Delusions—false beliefs based on a distorted view of reality—are a common symptom of schizophrenia. Arguing with a delusional belief or making fun of it will get you nowhere, since the other person is convinced that it's true. But going along with the delusion doesn't help either. Instead, simply state that you see things differently. Be respectful, but don't tolerate behavior that is inappropriate or dangerous.
The person with schizophrenia gets very worked up or angry.
Stay calm. Don't shout back or react with anger, sarcasm, or criticism. This is also not the time to try reasoning with the other person. Instead, suggest that you both sit down quietly for a while. Turn off the music, TV, phone, and other distractions, and ask visitors to leave. Avoid touching the person or making prolonged eye contact.
You feel stressed, run down, and worn out.
Make your own well-being a priority. Get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, eat a nutritious diet, and get medical care for any health concerns of your own. Take regular breaks from caregiving to pursue a hobby, visit with friends, or simply spend quiet time by yourself.
You need more support and information.
Call your doctor's office or local mental health center, and ask about support groups for family members of people with mental illness. Also, contact your local chapter of NAMI (www.nami.org) or Mental Health America (www.mentalhealthamerica.net).