Schizophrenia and Relationships

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Sister Lucinda Claghorn was 17 when she had her first psychotic episode. “My family abandoned me and handed me over to a local mental health clinic,” recalls Claghorn, a nun at the Secular Franciscan Order in Mobile, AL. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and admitted to AltaPointe Health, a psychiatric hospital. “The staff at AltaPointe knew my situation, and they accepted me. They’ve been family to me.”

With their assistance, Claghorn, now 67, has come a long way. She got degrees in criminal justice administration and psychology. And in 1989, she took vows to become a Catholic nun — something she had wanted to do since the age of 7. Some of the staff from AltaPointe attended the ceremony.

One of the more challenging things about schizophrenia is trouble forming close relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. But studies show that strong social ties that offer emotional and medical support can boost recovery. They can also help manage symptoms in the long run and possibly prevent further psychotic episodes.

Dealing With Stigma and Isolation

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder that happens when there’s chemical imbalance in your brain. It can make it hard for you to express and effectively convey your emotions and thoughts. Symptoms may also include hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech.

The stigma or negative labels sometimes attached to people with schizophrenia, like “lazy” or “unmotivated,” can act as a barrier, says Krista Baker, clinical manager of schizophrenia outpatient programs at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Claghorn knows what that’s like. “My family never liked me. They never accepted my schizophrenia. To them, I was just acting out or trying to get attention,” she says.

Isolation can also be an issue. Baker says schizophrenia may make you “speak less and desire less social contact.” This can add to the struggle to form connections.

The first step to breaking down the barriers, Baker says: “It’s important not to blame the person for their illness.”

Instead, families or support systems can help people with schizophrenia stay stable by assisting them in building social skills and getting the necessary treatment.

The Benefits of Supportive Relationships

If you have schizophrenia, it may seem hard to hone your social skills and build long-lasting relationships. But with effort and proper treatment, it can be done.

One way to build those skills is to join a support group where you can meet people who understand and help with what you’re going through.

Nora Baylerian, 56, a group leader for Schizophrenics Anonymous (SA) in Royal Oak, MI, says treating schizophrenia is no different from how you would treat any illness. “It’s a disease. Just like diabetics need their insulin, we need our psychiatric treatment.” But she says SA group meetings went beyond that, helping her make good connections and leading her self-esteem to “skyrocket.”

Sometimes, putting yourself out there can really pay off. When John Dunn, 54, went back to college after a few psychotic episodes, he decided to go to a psychological rehabilitation center to make friends and get support through the difficult process. Dunn says he had avoided romantic relationships up to that point. But there, he met the woman who would become his wife.

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“She asked me out on my first date. That’s why I eventually married her: because she was one of the first girls to show an interest in me,” says Dunn, a Michigan native and aspiring writer who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 26.

“I found a deep love with her as the years went on. It wasn’t really a romantic situation. We just got to be real good friends. … She’s supported me when I’ve been ill, and I’ve supported her when she’s been ill.” They’ve now been together for more than 11 years.

Support doesn’t always have to come from family, friends, or romantic partners. Claghorn credits her ability to live alone and manage her symptoms to her trained psychiatric service dog, a chihuahua called Millie.

“She lets me know when I’m hallucinating. If she’s barking when I hear people talking, then I know it’s real. If she’s not barking and I hear people talking, then I know it’s a hallucination. Then, I need to talk to my treatment team,” Claghorn says.

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Before getting a service dog, Claghorn required psychiatric treatment every 6 months or so. But in the 13 years she’s had Millie, she’s had only one episode.

Besides offering a reality check, Claghorn says, Millie has “wormed her way into her heart” and has given her a “sense of purpose.”

If Your Loved One Has Schizophrenia

It may be hard to form strong bonds with someone who has schizophrenia. But there are steps you can take:

Learn. The best way to build your relationship is to first learn about the person’s illness, says Sandy Dimiterchik, director of community engagement at the Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America, who herself has schizophrenia. Learning about the condition can help you understand what it means for someone to live with it and the type of symptoms they may have.

Listen. It can help for people with schizophrenia to share their problems and frustrations, which can lead them to the right kind of treatment. “Listen to them when they have symptoms. Be compassionate and help them in any way you can,” Baylerian says.

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Give support. Dunn says that building relationships can be as simple as “showing compassion, empathy, and acting upon it.”

Make yourself available in any way you can. Emotional support and encouragement may help people be open to treatment options and make progress with their condition.

“Support where they’re at, and ask questions that they can answer,” Dimiterchik says. “I have a close relationship with my sister and brother because we do things as a family. They are always available to talk and (are) proud of me for the steps I have taken to improve my life.”

Engage. Taking action early on can help a lot, Baker says. “Generally, at the onset of symptoms, (people with schizophrenia) establish patterns. The all-too-unfortunate thing is when you establish patterns, it’s hard to break later on,” she says. “If we intervene early on, then we’re going to keep them connected with friends; we’re going to keep them connected with their family. This way, they’re not going to isolate in their room, just take their meds, and watch TV.”

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She encourages families to “strike up a conversation” about whatever they want to talk about. This can help to build social skills.

Dimiterchik says a little effort can go a long way: “Try to get your loved ones to do things with you, even if it’s watching a movie on the television.”

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Practice self-care. Caring for someone with mental health issues can take a toll on you. Baker says it’s important to find time to take care of yourself, too. Consider joining support groups that focus on families and caregivers of people with schizophrenia.

At the end of the day, to form a long-lasting and meaningful bond with someone who has schizophrenia, Baker says, look beyond the illness.

“It’s important for people to remember that people with schizophrenia are people just like the rest of us, with struggles just like the rest of us. They shouldn’t be treated differently.”

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