6 Tips for Schizophrenia Caregivers

Help your loved one and yourself thrive when coping with this serious mental illness.

“You need family members with a clear understanding that this is an illness,” says John Preston, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and professor emeritus with Alliant International University in Sacramento, CA. “It’s a necessity to take your medications. It’s not a matter of a person trying harder.”

But even family members who know this can have a hard time. “The behavior of people who have schizophrenia often pushes people away,” Preston says. “It’s not their intention, but people in their lives are often uneasy around them and see them as being crazy. When they have a psychotic episode, they can do things that are embarrassing or bizarre. Lots of times, family members get burned out.”

Being a good caregiver to someone who has schizophrenia takes patience and determination, but it's critical to your loved one’s recovery. Here’s what you can do to help your loved one and yourself.

  • Be persistent about diagnosis and treatment. Schizophrenia is a complex illness that, on average, can take over 8 years to diagnose, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It always requires treatment, but the exact regimen must be customized. “One size does not fit all,” says Lisa Halpern, who lives with schizophrenia and works as director of peer support for Vinfen Corp., a nonprofit in Cambridge, MA that provides services to adults with mental illness and other disabilities. “There are many combinations of strategies for treatment and recovery. All of these are relevant.”
  • Join a support group. Living with someone who has schizophrenia can be difficult and exhausting. Halpern recommends caregivers join NAMI’s Family-to-Family program, which helps family members meet other caregivers and develop coping skills.
  • Keep loved ones on a consistent routine. Staying on schedule can minimize stress and make daily life more predictable. “Take meds at the same time every day,” Halpern says. “Practice good sleep hygiene. Watch out for too much stress and learn ways to mitigate it.”
  • Be proactive about their health and medical care. Make sure your loved one takes his medications. Arrange visits with a psychiatrist, and make sure he gets there. Help your loved one make other healthy choices with good nutrition, regular exercise and adequate sleep.
  • Find support from schools and employers. If the person with schizophrenia is still in school, talk with appropriate officials about making accommodations. If she is working at a job, ask her supervisor about accommodations at work.
  • Have high expectations. Halpern, whose diagnosis was made while she was a graduate student, says her doctor always believed she would go back to Harvard, even when she had lost her ability to read or write. Eventually, she did go back and get a master's degree. “Have high expectations for the person,” Halpern says. “Work with the person to achieve her goals. Schizophrenia needn’t be a reason to not live a fulfilling life.”

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