This recent New York Times Opinion Page essay is written by Law Professor, Elyn Saks. She tells a bit about her diagnosis of Schizophrenia years ago and her fight against those who thought that she would not amount to much. While we shouldn’t assume that everyone who struggles with delusions and hallucinations will rise to Dr. Saks level of accomplishments, we should take note where we give in to hopelessness when someone we love receives such a similar diagnosis. Such hopelessness will surely hamper our loved one’s prognosis for recovery.
There are two important factors that predict both recovery from mental illness and future recurrence of symptoms.
- Acceptance of diagnosis and treatment compliance
- Absence of family and social stressors
These factors are found in nearly all forms of mental illness, but especially pertinent for depression, mania, and psychotic disorders. When a person accepts the existence of a problem and commits to a treatment strategy, they are likely to be more cognizant of the signs and symptoms re-appearing and therefore willing to seek additional help. When medications create irritating side effects, the committed person will either find ways to tolerate these irritations or work with their doctor to find alternative treatments.
The absence or minimization of family stress requires the family or community to not behave in ways that exacerbate the problem. The family must also accept the limitations and not act in ways that place unrealistic expectations on the patient. This of course requires a great deal of sacrifice–on top of existing grief and loss over relationships that will not be what they could be (e.g., caretaking a spouse with mania, supporting an adult child who needs a sheltered environment). This means releasing the demand for the patient to reciprocate empathy or have insight about their impact on the family. Still further, when we loved ones maintain a hopeful perspective–identifying a patient’s value, capacity, and possibility for a future–we offer that person the greatest chance for success.
For some, success may mean being able to hold down a steady cashier job. For others, success may mean staying out of the hospital. Still others may rise to Dr. Saks level of success in academia. If you have a family member who suffers with mental illness, work hard to see them beyond their illness and evaluate their current capacities (rather than by their best or worst day). Oh, and be sure to find someone to talk to. Your family member isn’t the only one who needs help coping with a difficult world!