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Thoughts and concrete ideas for dealing with a loved ones diagnosis of a mental illness such as schizoaffective disorder.Thoughts and concrete ideas for dealing with a loved one's diagnosis of a mental illness such as schizoaffective disorder.

If one of your family members has been diagnosed with mental illness, then you and your family, no doubt, are experiencing a number of concerns, emotions and questions about these disorders. The following information is intended to inform you about mental illness and also to provide you and your family with coping skills which will be helpful to you.

In hearing that one of your family members has a mental illness, you may have already experienced emotions such as shock, sadness, anxiety, confusion, etc. These are not uncommon emotions, given the fact that the diagnosis of mental illness has carried a lot of negative associations in our society. What is important to understand and keep in mind is that the negative stigma associated with the diagnosis of mental illness has drastically changed over the course of the last few years.

In the past in our society, most mental illness was classified as a family disorder, and families tended to be blamed by professionals rather than supported. Research and the development of new and effective psychotropic medications and treatment approaches have changed this concept, and professionals no longer place blame upon family members. Mental Illnesses are disorders of the brain (a biological condition), where environmental and sociological factors play a part in the development of the disorder.

In the past few years, we have seen major developments, progress and changes in all areas of psychiatric research which suggest that mental illness can be managed and success in recovery can be achieved. Statistically, recovery from mental illness is a reality. It does appear, however, that each person diagnosed with mental illness has a different rate of recovery, and therefore it is important for you as family members to come to accept varying degrees of recovery for your loved one. It is also important to accept your feelings and seek out help to deal with them. Remember, having feelings as mentioned above is a normal process for all family members.

For you and your other family members, it is also imperative to understand and have support. (Read Help for Bipolar Patients: Family-Focused Therapy) The diagnosis of mental illness is much like a physical diagnosis such as cancer, MS, etc. Therefore, some of the emotions that you may be experiencing are about loss and grief. There is no question that any major illness affects the whole family and changes the way everyone goes about their daily life.

To deal with loss and grief issues is not an easy matter. There are, however, two major things to remember about the grieving process. The first is to allow yourself to feel. To do this you may need supportive counseling, good friends, or you may want to consider joining a support group. Some other suggestions are shown below. The second and perhaps most important is to come to accept and let go. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross suggests, one must first go through the stages of loss in order to come to the place of acceptance. These stages revolve around the primary emotions of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

As family members, you will need to access information and be in an environment in which professionals working with your loved one are sensitive to your needs and the grieving process associated with this illness.

The following are some suggestions for families and a few ways to cope and deal with your feelings and concerns. It is important that wherever you send your loved one for help, you get positive support and are not being blamed for your loved one's illness. Remember that you and your loved one do have a right to be informed and to make choices that work for you


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Suggestions for your initial contact with professionals and organizations that can assist with your loved one's mental illness and your understanding of it:

  1. Seek out a psychiatrist who seems to have an active involvement with the community resources available to families. You can ask questions such as how long has the psychiatrist worked with mental illness, what his/her knowledge is of psychotropic medication, what his/her philosophy is related to mental illness and family dynamics.

    It is important that the psychiatrist is able to refer you to qualified adjunctive professionals and programs, such as psychologists, social workers or treatment programs. Psychotropic medications can markedly improve symptoms and you can ask questions about the drugs used and their side effects, etc. If you feel comfortable with the primary psychiatrist, it makes the rest of treatment much easier to deal with. So ask questions.

  2. If your psychiatrist has referred you to Community Resources such as Psychologists and/or MFCC's for supportive community or other treatment programs, check them out and ask questions about their philosophy and experience.

  3. Connect with one or more of the associations in your area to gain more understanding and connect with other families experience the same concerns, feelings, etc.