Strength and Care: How to Support Loved Ones with Mental Disorders

Mental disorders affect much more than just the client. Because people do not exist in a vacuum of space, mental disorders affect family and friends of the client. Like a group effort, family and friends of the client also work towards recovery through supporting and helping the client. Hence, family and friends become a big part of the disorder-treatment-recovery process.

Family and friends, or the support system, offer the majority of their support through acts of empathy and care. These are defined by the way they can be present and available to the client. Examples of empathy are listening and trying to understand instead of correcting or shaming. Being proactive in treatment if they are involved in the goals and interventions set by the client and their therapist. Holding space for the client to be themselves. Researching and offering new resources for care and recovery.

Some of the empathetic behavior comes with being part of the treatment. This is usually decided by the client and whether or not they want to include different components of their support system in their treatment goals set during therapy. Being part of the client’s treatment can include, but is not limited to:

  • being a point-person to talk about difficult feelings,
  • modifying behaviors or triggers within the home to help the client acclimate,
  • attending seminars or support groups to process personal beliefs the family may have regarding the client’s diagnosis

Being a support to someone with a mental disorder can be, at times exhausting and frustrating. Trying to understand and work with someone whom you don’t completely understand can wear you down fast. That’s why it’s important to know our limits. Even though we want to be there for our loved ones we can’t give them to drink from an empty cup. Meaning, that we must first fill our own cup with love, trust, patience, care and support before we can give it to others. Being able to define what self-care is for us is important in caring for ourselves. Self-care can be sleeping in, exercising, cooking a delicious meal, or even saying no. Self-care is your space to recharge and center yourself.

An added component to self-care is the definition of boundaries. Many a time we are quick to jump on board and try to help without first checking in with ourselves. We need to be able to know when enough is enough. We need to know when we have done all that we could for the day, for that moment, or even for that lifetime. By not being able to set boundaries of how far we are willing t help, we are basically throwing ourselves to the wolves. We are not all powerful nor all knowing, and understanding that is the first step to accepting our limitations.

Finally, with any care-giving job we need to be aware of the fact that we are not here to save people. Our job is not to bring people back from the brink of hell and into a heavenly space. Recovery is a very personal and arduous process. As a care taker you can support the client, provide a healthier and safer environment, a non-judgmental space and your genuine care; however, all these things are not the only helping factors that come into play when caring for someone with a mental illness. All your support does create a base for trust and love but it does not, by itself, bring a complete recovery to a person with a mental illness. The client will need therapy, maybe medication, self-exploration, processing, and a desire, as well as movement, towards wanting to get better. You, as the care taker, are responsible for your support and how you treat the client. You, however, are not responsible for the recovery or the lack there of. A person must want to change before they can actually move towards wellness.

It’s kind of like riding a bike. Another person’s desire for a kid (the client) to learn how to write a bike is not enough to actually teach the kid to ride a bike. The kid has to want to ride the bike and seek for someone who can teach you how to ride the bike. The support (you as a caretaker) that the kid is given are given is what keeps the kid feeling safe and motivated to learn.

Care-taking is exhausting and frustrating; and just because you can think of ways that a person can get better does not equate to the person a)knowing that they can do better, b)understanding how they can do better, and c)getting better. If you are feeling at the end of your rope, frustrated or angry towards the client than it’s time to step back and re-evaluate. You cannot live someone else’s journey for them. The client needs to find their own strength, their own autonomy and their own self-love.

It is hard to accept that you can’t completely help someone get better. People are not objects that get fixed. People are messy and complicated sets of thoughts, feeling, and actions that act on their own accord. All you can do is support them, care for them, and love them in the hopes that they love themselves enough to seek help and care for themselves. You did your part by being present, helpful and caring; now it’s the client’s turn to find ways they can be all those things for themselves.

Signing off,

TWS

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Autism Spectrum Disorder: Support, Hope and Care

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders that are evident by repetitive behavioral patterns, difficulty in social interactions and communication, as well as difficulty in processing sensory information . Autism spectrum disorder is composed of different types of disorders that include people who are partially impaired or completely disabled by their disorder. People who are diagnosed with any type of autism within the spectrum tend to also be assessed for intellectual disabilities and language impairments.

Autism spectrum disorders can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. As well as it can be overlooked and later diagnosed in adulthood. Some early signs are:

  • Lack of or delay in spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects

When working with people who are in the autism spectrum it is important to remember that their needs and symptoms differ depending on the disorder. Being helpful starts with educating yourself of what the differences and needs are. The Autism Society offers helpful information on what autism is, what it’s like living with autism, resources for family members and resources in Spanish. The National Institute of Mental Health offers an in-depth list of symptoms to look for in adults and children. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke offers a comprehensive breakdown of autism and different resources for treatment.

Many forms of treatment exist to help people with autism manage acute behaviors and effectively communicate. One helpful form of treatment for autism spectrum disorder is art therapy. The Art of Autism explores how art can mold and reshape the lives of people with autism. In their site, they emphasize how art therapy promotes self-exploration and self-expression while building important skills, addressing deficits and problem behaviors. People with autism who have trouble speaking have found art therapy to be helpful in communicating through images. Art therapy has also been helpful in effectively relating client to therapist in situations where the client found it difficult to do one-on-one interactions. Art therapy has also been found to helpful when treating people with autism because it explores and addresses symptoms such as sensory processing problems, difficulty in relating with others, and tolerating unpleasant stimuli.

Being on any side of the autism spectrum can be considered a definitive and inflexible impairment. In specific case, it can be disabling and would require the person to have extra care. However, in some cases, people with autism can be independent, verbal, and have a social life. It may take treatment and support, but it is a strong possibility.

Signing off,

TWS

Substance AbUse: A Mental Health Issue

When talking about substance abuse and substance dependence some people tend to classify the actions of those who use the substances as a choice rather than a mental health problem.  Studies show that some people are genetically predisposed to have addicting behaviors that cause them to use, and sometimes abuse, specific substances. Other studies show that people who have other mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, tend to self-medicate by using substances which can lead them to develop a substance abuse. Substance abuse cannot cause a mental disorder but it can complicate it or make it more evident.

Having substance dependence (addiction) means that a person is unable to control their impulses in regards to specific substances. The person finds that they can no longer function normally without using a specific substance. The person’s body will stop producing necessary chemicals that have been substituted by certain drugs. People with addiction problems will experience tolerance of their preferred drug; meaning that they will seek out a higher dosage to feel the same ‘high’ as the first time. They will tend to use substances compulsively, no matter their state of mood. The substance user can experience physical reactions such as nausea, tremors, and low blood pressure if they stop using the substance. They can also experience psychological reactions such as irritability, depression and anxiety.

In a substance abuse happens when a person actively engages in activities and behaviors that can cause harm with the goal of getting their preferred substance. This may include drunk driving, getting arrested for possession and use of illegal substances, failing to keep commitments because the person was too high or drunk to functions, breaking up with a partner over fights about substance use, between many other risky behaviors. Substance abuse and substance dependence similar, but not the same. A person can have substance dependence and not be an abuser.

The first step, like all other mental disorders, is to admit that there is a problem. For a substance user to seek help they must first become aware that their dependence is a problem. Even though family and friends can help create interventions and support for the substance user, it is the substance user who has to take the first step.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers in-depth information regarding statistics, continuum of care, best practices, prevention and other important variables when working with substance use. The National institute of Drug Abuse offers helpful information such as Drug Facts and a list of Drugs of Abuse.  Finally, Mental Health America offers a few pointers for family and friends and how they can support and help loved one who have an addiction problem.

Signing off,

TWS

 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Pervasive Thoughts, Uncontrollable Compulsions

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is used, by those who do not have it or understand it, as a jest to mean someone who is very neat and clean. This idea only serves to perpetuate stereotypes about this serious mental disorder and make light of its detrimental and lasting effects on people who are diagnosed with it.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as “a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that the person feels the urge to repeat over and over” Obsessions are fueled by ideas or images that cause anxiety or fear of harm. Whereas compulsions are the behaviors that work to lessen the obsessions (e.g. fear of germs is accompanied by constantly watching their hands).

When OCD is experienced by adults, the may be aware that their fears are irrational but they still feel helpless in stopping their compulsive behavior. People who have OCD may find that they spend more time in their compulsive rituals to an extent that they are unable to live their lives without them. These rituals can extend between minutes to hours. The obsessions and compulsion can be physically and emotionally detrimental as they take a lot of will power to stop and lot of time to complete.

The International OCD Foundation offers examples of what it’s like to have OCD. They also offer a table that explains the most common obsessions for people with OCD. The International OCD Foundations also offers a directory of therapists and clinics that specialize in OCD. It also offers resources for family members and how to help and support someone with OCD.

Though invasive and detrimental, OCD can be treated and people who have been diagnosed with it can live normal and healthy lives. Learning how to work with, and not against, your mental disorder is part of treatment and recovery. There is help and there is hope.

Signing off,

TWS

PTSD: Symptoms, Facts and Finding Support

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is defined as persistent and invasive thoughts of being in danger or reliving a traumatic event when they are not in immediate danger or within the traumatic event. Some people may associate PTSD with people who have experienced some form of war combat; however PTSD affects every 8th person out of 100. PTSD can be result from vicarious trauma, experiencing traumatic events (war, sexual assault, abuse, etc.)or experiencing a sudden or violent death of a loved one.  Symptoms of PTSD can be present immediately or start a year after the event. The symptoms have to be severe enough to interfere in relationships, work and personal life.

The major diagnostic criteria, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, are

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offer a more in depth symptoms and causes list. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, on the other hand, provides more information on causes, co-morbid disorders and treatment.

The importance on knowing this information lies on the fact that we don’t all experience trauma in the same way. Some of us are less resilient than others, and that is okay. What is not okay is shaming others for not being able to process difficult situations faster or in a healthier way than others. Trauma is the common cold of mental disorders; we all have experienced it at least once in our lives. It may not turn into a chronic mental disorder, but it is present and it reshapes how we perceive life. Trauma can lead us to feel stunted emotionally and psychologically. It could leave us hyper-vigilant or perpetually scared. Trauma is a pervasive mental health problem that needs to be taken seriously.

Experiencing trauma and being affected by it does not make us weak; it makes us human. Being able to seek help and treatment is key and necessary for a healthy recovery. I offer you this page that helps screen for potential PTSD symptoms. It is by no means a diagnostic test but rather a screening test. For major concerns and actual diagnostic test contact your psychologist, counselor and/ or your psychiatrist.

Signing off,

TWS

Mental Disorders and Providing Support

 

Getting support and care for when you are sick is usually not a problem. Family, friends and loved one will try to help you by making sure that your needs are met. They will try to carry you until you feel better. The same can rarely be said when you are diagnosed with a mental disorder. People with mental disorders, more times than not, feel marginalized, alone and alienated. They feel ashamed of their illness and other make them feel ashamed as well.

Mental disorders are viewed as emotions and thoughts that can be changed by sheer willpower. That all a person needs to do is ‘feel better’ or ‘stop thinking bad things’. Sadly that is not true. Mental disorders are caused by the lack of or the over production of certain chemicals in the bran. This chemical imbalance can be due to genetics, traumatic incidents or trauma related injuries. Thus people can’t just will their severe depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, eating disorder away by simply being told to ‘stop it.’ I mean, if that were the case then there would be no mental disorders.

 

For a person with a mental disorder, recovery is a long and hard road. Though therapy and self-care are strong components of that process, so is support from family and friends. Knowing that there is someone willing to listen and be present means the world to someone battling a mental disorder. Having support by loved ones makes them feel witnessed, valued and able to continue their journey.

The same goes for people with mental disorders supporting other people with mental disorders. We are in this together. Even though we may have different diagnoses, different recovery paths and different trauma histories; we all, at some point, have felt the same feelings of alienation and loneliness. Being able to support each other in each other’s journey to recovery means that we strong against a illness of the mind, yet united by that as well. Always keep in mind that someone supported you before you started in your journey, and that you, some day, can be that first lifeline to someone else in need of help.

Signing off,

TWS

My Mother’s Mother

Today the world stop turning, or at least it felt that way. As my mother informed me of her mother passing away I felt a cry, a bark, a child like screech escaped my throat. A sound not too familiar, but one that had been uttered earlier this week when my dog died. The sudden punch of anguish, the silence from the other end of the phone, the immediate incoherent thoughts and all the memories that did not come to fruition overwhelmed and clouded my vision.
Today my family lost one of the strongest women I have ever met. Petite in figure, mute in expression yet big at heart and strong in character. My mother’s mother, the woman who taught me the importance of keeping family close. Cooking, sewing and ironing; the perfect 1950’s wife. I remember her as a small figure with a big shadow. Daughter of a seamstress and a tabaco farmer, she was humble and strong. She married a man that complimented her self-esteem, her ego and her resilient character. She mothered two daughters under a no-nonsense household that was filled with eternal laughter, good food, and a sturdy matriarchy.
Today I reached for her in my memory trying to find where I placed her last. I traveled to early 1990’s when I barely knew how to write my name or understand how hard math would be for me. There she was, standing in her floral dress, in her kitchen. I heard her offer me my favorite dish, no one could ever do it like her. My memories shifted to my first security blanker, her gift to me. Later she would make sure that I got as many as I needed so as to never feel alone. I remember her passion for roses and how she built her own garden while she cared for me. She never talked about them but rather tended to them as if they were her children, as if those roses were me and my brother. My memories darken to the last time I had a fight with her, her memory started failing her. Agoraphobia took over and I no longer could see that sturdy image of matriarchy.
Today, as I silently sobbed within my state of shock I wondered when was the last time I saw my grandmother walk. As her health declined I recall helping her stand. Her inability to stay awake made her a statue-like figure in my development; always present, never moving, always resting. My grandfather would try to coax her out of her slumber. Sometimes he would compliment her beauty and how sleeping did wonders. Later she would be confined to her bed indefinitely. She would be unable to walk, talk, eat or recognize my face. All the while the world would continue moving around her. She would miss my graduations, my engagement, her husband’s diagnosis and recovery from cancer, and her husband’s decline in health. And while he laid in a similar hospital bed next to her, she would not know how much they both had changed.
Today my mother reminded me that this is what her mother would have wanted. A sturdy woman of barely 5’4 had told her daughters to be strong and to watch for her signals as she was ready to go. My mother reminded me that my grandmother, even though she could not talk, that she was aware and thankful for all that they did to keep her safe. My mother reminded me that my grandmother lived a good life surrounded by good children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Today, as I wave her goodbye (through no desire of my own) I let my mind wonder to the last place I loved her the most. I was 5, maybe, it was summer. I was wearing short purple flower pants and a matching blouse. I was at my grandparents house at Aguadilla. My grandmother was hanging up clothes on the clothe’s line in the backyard. Though the sun was radiant, blinding, she was shaded by the avocado trees. I stood a couple of feet from her submerged in the beauty of her garden. Roses, ferns, orchids and many other tropical flowers swayed with me as I laughed with the wind. I would sit against the house, covered by the flowers, as she completed her chores. I would look at her with love and wonder. How could this woman hold so much grace in her small hands, so much love in her smile, so much command in her eyes? The mother of my mother, what a sight to behold. What a woman to have met.
The mother of my mother, taught me the value of keeping those you love safe. She taught me the importance of planting love. She taught me the secret of grace in silence. And she taught me how to be strong in all the small ways.