When someone in your life has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, it can be a confusing and initially, a scary idea. Misconceptions and unintentional ignorance (as well as outright prejudice and stigma) surround this mental disorder. “Schizophrenia means you’re crazy, right?” “You’re not going to go psycho on me, right?”
Helping someone with schizophrenia can be fraught with challenges. But as a close friend or a loved one, you want to help and do so in a way that is not going to be perceived as intrusive or judgmental. How can you best navigate this challenge successfully?
Before you can help someone with a disorder or health concern of any kind, you’ll do so much better if you first understand exactly what the condition entails. Reading up on it online is a good place to start — and there’s no better place than our Schizophrenia Guide or on another trusted health website like HelpGuide or the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
The more you learn about the condition, the better you’ll know what symptoms don’t characterize schizophrenia and learn about the many myths surrounding schizophrenia. For instance, many people naturally assume that people schizophrenia are more violent and more likely to cause harm to others. Violence in people with schizophrenia remains a rare occurrence; people with schizophrenia are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators.
Part of understanding schizophrenia is related to having compassion for that person, too (just as you would when someone is diagnosed with cancer). Understanding what it’s like to live with schizophrenia can help put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Virtually everyone who has schizophrenia should have a person who is close to them working on their behalf to ensure they’re receiving the treatment — and, if needed, benefits — they’re entitled to. Talk to the person battling the condition first to ensure they’re comfortable with you talking to their advocate. The advocate can help you better understand where the person with schizophrenia is in treatment, how they’re doing (for instance, are they following up on additional support options, are they taking their medication regularly as prescribed, etc.).
Their advocate may also be the best person who knows what the person needs most at this moment in time. Some things that will benefit a person with schizophrenia virtually at any time include:
- Non-judgmental, non-conditional emotional support
- Your best active listening skills
- Offers to help with everyday errands that may seem easy or inconsequential to you (but may mean the world to your friend or loved one)
- Support — again without judgment — for their efforts in treatment, at home, and in the community
- Scheduling simple activities that the other person enjoys when spending time with you
- Spending time with that person, in any capacity, even if it’s just watching TV or YouTube
So what? People say outrageous things all the time (look no further than our politicians for examples). We don’t make a big deal out of them for strangers, so you shouldn’t make a big deal out of them for your friend or loved one either.
You’re not there to help treat the person with schizophrenia. So it does you no good to try and play armchair psychologist and challenge a person’s (false) beliefs or hallucinations. Remember, these delusions or hallucinations may not mean anything to you, but they have very strong, important meanings to the individual. ((Again, don’t be swayed into thinking it’s your role to help discover what those meanings are, or challenge the person’s attachment to those beliefs or hallucinations.))
Instead, acknowledge you’ve heard the person (so as not to be rude, unthoughtful, or unkind), acknowledge the emotional message the person is relaying to you, and when it seems appropriate, move the conversation along to a related topic where you have reason to believe the person holds no such beliefs or hallucinations.
For instance, “Wow, I’m really sorry to hear that that voice is telling you to do those things. It must be so difficult living with that every day…” The person may try to draw you into their hallucinations or beliefs further, asking, “Do you ever hear voices like that?” Answer honestly, but know that however you answer, your experience is unlikely to be similar to theirs. ((Unless, of course, you too were diagnosed with or have schizophrenia.))
The key to compassion in schizophrenia isn’t that you need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes to really understand them. Each person’s experience of schizophrenia can be very different and unique from another’s. Compassion only requires that you remember the person as a fellow human being, deserving of kindness and respect.
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