I have been walking the road of mental illness alongside my husband for almost 4 years now and sometimes it seems like forever. At times, it can be hard to remember what life was like before that fateful day when the first episode of psychosis hit him so unexpectedly. Like all roads in life, everyone’s journey is different. What we learned along our journey into the mental health system is unique to our experience. Without previous exposure to mental illness, there are a few things I wish we had known before we started down this path. Here are some of them.
Receiving an accurate diagnosis and finding the right medication and/or therapy is a very long process. In our case a diagnosis took over 2 years! Naively, we expected one right away. Learning about a particular illness and its characteristics and nuances takes time. Medication can take days and weeks, even months to be effective. Sometimes several medications are required and there are associated side effects that need to be addressed. There are long wait times between appointments. Be prepared for a long, long journey ahead. You’ll need plenty of patience too.
Educate Yourself – and fast!
Learn everything you possibly can about the type of mental illness your loved one is dealing with. I never knew how much information was out there until I started poking around. Read as much as you can and find as many resources as you can possibly get your hands on. Mental health resources are readily available if you know where to look. Don’t expect anyone to send you off with a handful of pamphlets and reading material. It simply doesn’t happen that way. Aside from obvious sources like the internet and the library, try seeking out support groups, mental health blogs and discussion forums. Talk to someone at a local mental health organization. Talk to the pharmacist. Learn about the meds your loved one is prescribed. Know the possible side effects. At every appointment, take notes and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Look things up when you get home. Learn the language and definitions. The sooner you know what you are dealing with, the better you can help your loved one.
Be Part of a Support Team
Supporting my husband was a full-time job at the beginning. Whether it is your partner, sibling, parent, relative, child or close friend that you are trying to help, be available when possible to attend appointments and meetings. Another set of ears and being present to take notes may be necessary especially when your loved one is overwhelmed. You may notice things that they themselves might not recognize. It is important to mention these things to the psychiatrist. Sometimes people hesitate to mention certain behaviours or thoughts to their psychiatrists for fear as being labelled crazy or they are embarrassed. Fear of being overmedicated can also prevent people from being forthright with their psychiatrist. Prepare for appointments as they can go by fast. Make it count. Address other health care concerns with the family doctor. Don’t neglect pre-existing health concerns and pay attention to new concerns that may arise. You can assist your loved one to find a counselor if that’s what they feel they need. Having someone to talk to and dig into the ‘how’s and ‘why’s can be very insightful. Get to know the pharmacist. They can be a wealth of information and are familiar with psychiatric medications. Seek out a support group for you and/or your loved one. It may be awkward at first and may not be for everyone but sharing experiences can be comforting as well as enlightening. There are support groups for families, spouses and caregivers.
Acceptance is a key player and the faster that happens, the faster recovery can take place. When mental illness strikes, shock, denial and anger are natural responses for the person inflicted as well as for those who care about that person. Without self-acceptance, recovery may be stalled. In our case, my husband spent a lot of time and energy looking for other reasons for falling ill. Acceptance takes time and is a process. Without acceptance from friends and family, recovery can be difficult. We learned very quickly which friends and family members were supportive. Some came around with time and understanding, while for others acceptance is yet to happen. Mental illness should not be ignored or denied as much as it can be willed away. People trying to recover and reclaim their lives need acceptance from those who matter most to them. Sadly, the Canadian Medical Association points out that when Canadians were asked, only 49% said they would socialize with a friend who had mental illness. Kind of makes you wonder who your friends are, doesn’t it?
Fight the Stigma
The stigma surrounding mental illness is a huge obstacle that delays the recovery process. There is so much negative stigma surrounding mental illness because people are afraid of the unknown. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that while 1 in 5 Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, the lingering stigma means 2 in 3 will struggle in silence fearing judgment and rejection. Start talking about mental health. Help educate those you come across that use derogatory language. Explain how hurtful words like psycho, schizo and nutjob can be. Offer facts and explanations for certain behaviours and remind people not to be judgmental and critical. Encourage kindness.
Embrace Time, Patience and Hope
Battling a mental illness takes time. A lot of time. Regular activities like school and work may be put on hold while trying to recover. Relationships can become strained. Sometimes we have to make concessions and change the way we do things. You may become the target of their anger and aggression. Effort is required to cope with new demands due to the illness. Try not to take it personally. They are troubled and also afraid. Hold onto hope. Most people recover from mental illness and resume their life. Recovery is possible.
About Marion Gibson
Marion is the author of Unfaithful Mind, a memoir detailing her family’s journey through a significant mental health crisis. She is an advocate of mental health awareness working to break down the stigma of mental illness. She is now pursuing an education in mental health and addictions and working on her second book. Marion lives in Victoria, BC with her family. You can follow Marion at the HMC Supportive Minds blog here or on Facebook and Twitter.