Long before schizophrenia is diagnosed, relatives of someone with the disorder may begin to feel stressed. Prodromal, or early, signs of schizophrenia can emerge years before a diagnosis is made. Family members may begin to notice behavior changes in their relative. These behavior changes can cause a lot of anxiety, worry, or guilt for a family member of someone with schizophrenia.
Natalie has said that she feels responsible for Kevin. She grew up with Kevin, now lives with him, and cares for him a great deal. Now that she knows that Kevin may have developed the same disease that resulted in her father’s suicide, Natalie feels guilty.
She feels guilty because she is healthy whereas Kevin is suffering from schizophrenia. Most likely, Natalie is under a lot of stress. She loves her cousin and wants to help take care of him. In agreeing to help Kevin, Natalie is taking on a big responsibility. Even though she wants to help Kevin, she needs to take care of herself as well.
Family members worry about preventing relapse and keeping their loved one healthy. Unfortunately, many families must worry about their finances because they may have high hospital or medication expenses. Relatives of schizophrenia patients are always on guard for any change in the patient’s behavior.
Being overburdened with worry about a loved one, family members of schizophrenic patients can ignore their own needs and become depressed and anxious. In order to prevent caregiver “burnout,” it is crucial that family members find support of their own.
Relatives of schizophrenia patients experience the negative effects of the stigma associated with mental illness. In our society, mental illness is sometimes interpreted as a sign of weakness. Some people still believe that schizophrenia is caused by bad parenting and is the fault of the family.
Others think that the mentally ill just need to “get over it” and move on with their lives. This can be very difficult for someone who cares for a schizophrenic loved one. Mental illness is different from physical illness.
When you see people who are physically disabled, you offer to help them by opening the door or carrying their groceries. You assume that their condition is not their fault. Mental disease, schizophrenia in particular, usually just becomes apparent to other people because someone is acting “weirdly.” Instead of trying to help, most people keep a safe distance and want to ignore the person with schizophrenia.
As a result, caregivers of schizophrenics can be alienated and made to feel guilty and alone.
In order to avoid being overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for someone with schizophrenia, caregivers are urged to join a support group. A support group provides a forum for family members to share their feelings about having a schizophrenic relative.
Additionally, caregivers are encouraged to take personal time away from their relative. Exercise, regular excursions out of the home, and even weekends away can provide a good vacation from the stress of dealing with someone with mental illness. Ironically, caring for a schizophrenic relative can increase the likelihood that the caregiver will develop symptoms of mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse are common to people who take care of relatives with schizophrenia.
Heather Barnett Veague, Ph.D.
Heather Barnett Veague attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and received her Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University in 2004. She is the author of several journal articles investigating information processing and the self in borderline personality disorder. Currently, she is the Director of Clinical Research for the Laboratory of Adolescent Sciences at Vassar College. Dr. Veague lives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and children.