Sunday, May 10, 2009


For as long as I remember my mum has been ill. She will often get into fights with neighbours accusing them of having evil intentions towards her. She was not the kind of mum anyone would dream of…she was unpredictable and sometimes she was out rightly frightening. We couldn’t usually bring our friends home for fear of being embarrassed. At first, I felt shame, and then I felt so angry at her and blamed her for her state. When I became older I was often hostile towards her.

Despite her struggle with the illness I could see that she loved us and she often regretted her inability to be the mum we wanted her to be.

Funke, Lagos.

No doubt when someone is mentally ill it also affects those around them and often drains their loved ones emotionally. These loved ones struggle with issues like stigma, fear of coming down with the illness, anxiety arising from anticipating being embarrassed by the one that is ill and frustration having to pay extra attention attending to some of the needs of the ones that are mentally ill.

I have noticed that too many times, particularly in the country where I practice, the coping styles adopted to deal with the stress of having a loved one who is mentally ill are not healthy and usually increase the risk of an emotional breakdown in these loved ones and possibly worsen the condition of the one who is ill.

I sincerely appreciate the burden of having a love one suffer from a mental illness and I know it may not be easy coping with them but here are some tips to help cope and reduce the burden…

  1. Be informed about the illness.

Most times people just want them treated and don’t want to be informed about it. It is advisable to equip oneself with the nature of the illness especially in this age when that could be easily done. Try and find out what type of mental illness (the diagnosis), the features (the symptoms) of the illness, what turns it on and what treatment is available for the condition. It is also wise to find out the course of the illness: in some mental illness, when the individual is stable there is very little or no evidence that the individual had been ill like in Bipolar disorder whereas in some other condition, like schizophrenia, even when the individual is no longer actively ill there are traces of behaviour that gives them away that the suffer from a mental illness.

Trust me, being informed improves ones capacity to appropriately cope with those who are mentally ill.

  1. Avoid blaming anyone.

On very few occasion there is a clear cut cause of the illness but often it is due to the interplay of multiple risk factors. We may readily blame a drug abuse habit but there are those who have similar habit but never had a mental breakdown. Now, I’m not endorsing drug abuse but I’m only saying don’t be too quick to philosophize a cause and apportion blame. Looking for someone or something to blame sometimes robs one of taking responsibility to carry out the next appropriate step.

  1. Be supportive.

Now before you jump and say I already know and do that, there two major areas where I would want to advice you to show your support

· Learn how best to communicate with them. This could be a very difficult task depending on the nature of the mental illness but remember this that the most important tool in communicating with anyone-whether mentally ill or not- is respect; treat them the way you will like to be treated.

Avoid being HOSTILE, OVERLY INVOLVED WITH THEM EMOTIONALLY (like being in their face all the time) and OVER CRITICIZING them…these attitudes could actually lead to a relapse or re- occurrence of the mental illness.

For more details on how to communicate with them, you can read up “Tips on communicating with a mentally ill person” by Brigite Boulard.

· Help them out with complying with treatment. This entails compliance with follow-up appointments and medications. You may often have to be firm but not hostile. Learn to encourage not threaten. Have you ever failed completing your medication that you were suppose to take for just a week or two may be for malaria or the flu or some infection of some sort? Then imagine taking medication daily for many years…like we say in Nigeria…e no easy!

  1. Find support for yourself.

I could say there are two sources of support and it is advisable to use both, they are

· Professional support. This could be offered by any member of the health team. You could be educated about things that could put you at risk of coming down with a similar illness.

· Non professional. This could be from a religious group or someone (or a group of people) with similar challenges.

Whatever you do, don’t try to “act out small ville”; trying to be a super man or woman and keep everything to yourself. We all need someone to talk to; it will help lessen the burden.

Remember, people with mental illness can live more productive lives, talk to a professional today.

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