All mental illnesses pose their challenges, both for the person who has the illness and for the friends and family who want to offer their help and support. Schizophrenia is no exception to this. The estimate is that around one in every hundred people in Ireland has the condition, and for many of these people it can be quite debilitating.
Although family and friends often have the best of intentions, misconceptions about schizophrenia can mean that they are working off of the wrong information basis. According to the HSE (Health Services Executive), the most commonly spread myth about schizophrenia is that people with it have a 'split' or dual personality.
What might seem like chaotic or irrational behavior is actually the presentation of cognitive issues such as an inability to concentrate or focus, the presence of hallucinations or delusions, or depressive feelings. None of these are indicators of a split personality, and an understanding of this is vital to being a supportive presence for a loved one.
Schizophrenia is classified as a psychotic illness, meaning it alters the ability to think clearly, make rational decisions, and can make navigating social norms and communicating effectively difficult. The erratic behavior that can come along with psychotic illnesses is not the fault of the person with it. Distinguishing the person from the disorder, and recognising that these behaviors are not a choice but a symptom is imperative.
Relationships can be hindered by not making this distinction. It is perfectly acceptable to be angry or frustrated with the schizophrenia while acknowledging that the person does not have full control over their own reactions. Being angry at the disorder can be healthy, but being angry with your loved one for having the disorder, while at times is understandable, will likely turn into a negative force in your relationship. Doing your utmost to put them at ease by making sure they know you're aware when their behavior is due to the disorder is one of the most helpful things you can do.
As the friend, partner or family member of someone with schizophrenia, some of the things you can do are:
- Educate yourself using resources such as the HSE or Headsup websites
- Stay calm when they are presenting with behavior that is symptomatic of schizophrenia as they may be hallucinating or be incapable of rational thought and raised voices or harsh criticism may only serve to make them feel under attack.
- Try not to place blame or get angry at them for behaviors out of their control.
- If you're willing to have them talk to you when they're having a difficult time, make sure that they know you're open to being a confidant.
Be aware that most people with schizophrenia take medication for it so the symptoms can be minimal but these medications can have side effects, meaning they could be experiencing things that are not sympathetic of schizophrenia but are side effects are medication. Common examples include nausea, hunger or loss of appetite, headaches, lack of concentration, slower reflexes, insomnia and so on but they are individual to each medication, the combinations of certain medications and to each person.
Levels of depression, use of alcohol and cigarettes to cope, and suicidal thoughts are relatively high in people with schizophrenia. Look out for the warning signs of these and encourage the person to seek help from their GP, counselor or psychiatrist if you are worried about their wellbeing.
Finally, it is important to think of yourself when being there for someone with schizophrenia, or any mental illness. Take time away for yourself when necessary, don't be afraid to ask for help, and know that there are limitations to what you can do.
The symptoms are not under your control, meaning that being supportive is all that can be done. This can mean simply listening to them if they need to talk, or helping out with the day-to-day if necessary, although many people are able to live without aid.
Above all, looking after your own mental health is vital and making sure that you're not impacting on your personal health by being support for someone else. Opening a dialogue about the more complex areas of mental health and illnesses through events such as the USI Mental Health Week is invaluable in challenging the negative perceptions of those with illnesses like schizophrenia.