The diagnosis of schizophrenia has countless implications for an individual’s life. Being diagnosed with schizophrenia can mean many things to a person, including the loss of identity and sense of self, the loss of their life as they once knew it, various losses in work, familial, educational, and social settings, and countless other types of losses. Due to the major life changes that come with schizophrenia, new feelings of uncertainty, depression, hopelessness, grief, and fear may result, as the individual’s life may begin to look entirely different to them. Addington, Williams, Young, and Addington (2004) indicate that, due to the major life changes and losses that come with schizophrenia, individuals who are recently-diagnosed are at risk for depression, along with suicidal ideation and behavior, which is a major cause for concern. It goes without saying that this potentiality establishes a need for comprehensive safety plans when working with clients who have recently been diagnosed with the disorder.
Managing Depression and Suicidality
It is common for clients with schizophrenia to feel grief and loss due to the myriad life changes that it triggers (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007). In this sense, during treatment, it is essential for clinicians to help clients navigate through the grieving process. According to Tait, Birchwood, and Trower (as cited in Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007), depression has been found to lead to the abandonment of treatment by clients due to the isolating characteristics of the disorder. Abandonment of treatment poses serious drawbacks for clients.
Wittmann and Keshavan (2007) assert that the grieving process is a necessary component to coming to terms with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia. Due to the sense of loss experienced by individuals newly diagnosed with schizophrenia, it is essential for them to navigate and work through the grieving process (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007). According to Lewis (as cited in Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007), by doing so, clients will learn to mourn the life and identity changes that have occurred, along with establishing the ability to integrate such change into their lives. It has been shown that counseling can be beneficial in such a situation.
Grief and mourning are a common component in clients diagnosed with schizophrenia (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007). This is because the diagnosis of a serious, permanent mental disorder is a major life crisis for most. The disorder affects the mind in very serious ways (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007). In some cases, clients might spiral into psychosis as a means of dissociating, or defending against facing, the losses their disorder has caused (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007). Clinicians have a major hand in helping clients manage this crisis.
Numerous models exist to explain grief and mourning, and can also help professionals guide grieving individuals. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) proposed five stages of grief that individuals can experience while grieving. They include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In contrast, Worden (2002) proposes four tasks, as opposed to stages of grief. These include accepting the reality that loss has occurred, feeling the pain and emotional responses to the loss that has occurred, readjusting to life after the loss, and finding ways to remember the lost individual. Although these models are meant to aid in grieving a person, individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia are, in fact, grieving the loss of the person they once were and will potentially no longer be. In this sense, these models offer a framework that can be used in counseling to help a client adjust to life after their loss of self.
A Safety Plan for the Newly Diagnosed
Clinicians should develop a safety plan for use in the event that a client presents with suicidal intent or depressive symptoms, as these are both common in newly diagnosed clients. One of the first issues to address is the onset of depressive symptoms or suicidal thoughts. A safety plan can involve listing symptoms characteristic of depression, including those characteristic to the client, as well as those that the client has not felt before, but could potentially feel in the future. This would help foster the client’s awareness of their own symptoms.
Along with such a list, clinicians can help clients determine the course of action to be taken if suicidal thoughts or feelings occur. Action plans can include emergency contact numbers, such as a suicide hotline and that of the primary therapist, the psychiatrist and other medical doctors, and family members or other individuals who serve as the client’s support system. One of these individuals could sit with the client and support them through the situation while attempting to contact appropriate clinicians. If the client has no close friends or relatives, suggest that they join an in-person or online support group.
Clients should be asked to keep a list of depressive or suicidal triggers. During sessions, the counselor and client could develop and implement ways for such triggers to be managed.
Clinicians should urge clients to remove from his or her home any items that could be used to self-harm. Making access difficult reduces the temptation to use them. This might be especially useful for clients who have already made attempts, and would also potentially increase the likelihood of them seeking some form of support or following an appropriate plan of action, rather than engaging in self-injurious behavior.
Clients can be encouraged to keep an up-to-date medication list with them at all times. This will help them if they need to seek out emergency services. During a crisis, it might be difficult for them to recall each of the medications they take, as their minds will be preoccupied.
Clinician should keep a current list of service providers to which clients can be referred. For example, if the client’s symptoms become more intense and overwhelming for them, and more in-depth treatment is required, the clinician should be able to make an appropriate referral or direct the client to an appropriate provider. This could further ensure the client’s safety, as he or she would receive the necessary services, especially if more in-depth treatment is required.
A diagnosis of schizophrenia presents serious implications for newly diagnosed individuals in particular. Those with schizophrenia have a vast series of challenges to face, including overcoming and grieving the loss of a sense of self, experiencing a loss of hope for the future, accepting the diagnosis, facing the fact that social, occupational, educational, familial, and romantic arenas might undergo marked change, and integrating new insights, coping strategies, and processes learned on their journey into their life.
Because the diagnosis of a serious mental illness can cause a major life crisis (Wittmann & Keshavan, 2007), clinician support is critical. This is especially true because depression and suicidal ideation are common in the newly diagnosed (Addington et al., 2004). Along with helping the client manage their diagnosis and helping to facilitate his or her grieving process, clinicians can help ensure client safety by establishing and agreeing upon a safety plan for use in the event that the client is experiencing depressive symptoms or suicidal ideations. Not only will this help clients to feel supported and cared for, but it will also potentially help save a life in the event of an emergency or crisis.
Addington, J., Williams, J., Young, J., & Addington, D. (2004). Suicidal behaviour in early psychosis. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 109(2), 116-120.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Scribner.
Wittmann, D. & Keshavan, M. (2007). Grief and mourning in schizophrenia. Psychiatry, 70(2), 154-166.
Worden, J.W. (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (3rd ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company.