Caring for a Loved One with a Mental Illness
Caring for someone with a mental illness can be a challenging and demanding role, and it often happens unexpectedly.
It can begin by doing simple tasks such as doing laundry or picking up prescriptions. Gradually, you start to take on day-to-day tasks, and your responsibility grows to a commitment of actually taking care of someone.
Alternatively, caregiving can happen suddenly due to a significant life event such as a stroke or accident. Your sole purpose begins to revolve around taking care of a loved one.
Caregiving can come with difficulties but can be a gratifying and loving experience. If you are a caregiver, it is essential to educate yourself on how you can best help the person you are caring for and how you can also take care of yourself.
As a caregiver, you can experience a wide range of emotions. In the beginning, it can be disbelief which then transitions to many conflicting emotions such as anger, guilt, compassion and love.
Naturally, as a caregiver, you are more likely to be concerned with the wellness of others, but it should not come at the expense of your health. It is important to take time for yourself, and seek professional help if needed.
Here, we provide general tips to help caregivers stay healthy, positive, and provide the best care.
Arm yourself with knowledge
Learn everything you can to understand the illness and the specific skills you need to take care of the individual. Gather information from family doctors, psychiatrists, mental health organizations, etc. Keep a journal or notebook to write down questions, so you can ask them at doctor appointments. Fill in the answers provided, so you do not forget any valuable information.
Learn about the mental health system. Then, become knowledgeable about the features of the illness, treatment options, medications, potential side effects from medications, and so on.
Information will assist you in making well-informed health decisions and dealing with upcoming health challenges. “An effective caregiver most importantly, educates themselves on their loved ones illness, so that they have a better understanding of what the person is going through and why they might be acting the way they do,” says Rachel Boots, PhD, LMSW, CAADC, clinician at Telebehavioral Health.US.
Be an advocate for your loved one. Advocate for them by being able to inform others of any particular circumstances that need to be accommodated. Become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and other state and national provisions.
Strive for effective communication with the loved one you are caring for through non-verbal cues, facial expressions, eye contact, and voice tone. All of these small things add up. Learn the most effective ways to communicate with your loved one for fewer misunderstandings (i.e., human touch because it comforts them). This can be trial and error but remain patient and ease discomfort whenever possible.
Be an active listener. Rachel suggests that by “utilizing knowledge, open, and caring communication, the caregiver may be able to provide to provide additional support to their loved one in terms of identifying cues that they may be entering an episode, and thus be able to help their loved one prevent an episode from progressing.” It will help you be in-tune with the needs of your loved one. Be a team.
Ask for help/support.
50% of caregivers do not receive any additional help. It is okay to need help or want help. It doesn’t mean you’re failing. Determine who is willing to help and assess what they can do, whether it is be something big or small. Family members and friends often want to help and can provide support in a variety of ways. Start by making a list of things for which you need help. This way, if someone offers to help you have a list to refer to or ask them what they would like to help with from the list.
Join a local or online support group. This provides you with the chance to share, connect, and learn new information.
Look into support groups for your loved ones with disabilities. There are local and national groups that provide services, resources, and recreation for those with disabilities.
Enjoy milestones and celebrate them. Find little ways to celebrate throughout the day.
Focus on what your loved one can do. Be thankful and appreciative of those skills. “It may seem obvious but an effective caregiver does not use negative reinforcement through labeling and shaming. It will make their episode worse,” says Rachel Boots.
Find a fun activity you both enjoy. Do it together for some lighthearted fun and stress relief from your daily tasks, doctor appointments, etc.
Take care of yourself.
Taking care of someone else can take a toll on even the most experienced caregiver. Take time for yourself by taking short breaks. Find someone you trust who can watch over your loved one effectively. Delegate caregiving tasks to reliable people. If you need to take a more extended break, consider looking into respite care.
Don’t forget about your health. If you are not taking care of yourself mentally and physically, you will not be the best caregiver to your loved one. Exercise regularly, create a consistent sleep pattern, eat well-balanced meals, and take time to relax.
Maintain your life outside of being a caregiver. You do not have to feel guilty about this. It is healthy to maintain your hobbies, personal interests, and friendships.
Remember, you are human. It is okay not to be perfect every single day.
Use these tips to help ease stress and be a more effective caregiver to someone you love.