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Someone close to me has a mental illness. What should I do? Where should I start?

I thought I had just won a ticket to hell. Seeing my brother in this state devastated me. To tell you the truth, I didn’t recognize him anymore…” -Maryse, the sister of a young man with schizophrenia

When mental illness affects a family member, it is common for family relationships to be shaken. Whether it’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or borderline personality disorder, the consequences are similar. Because mental illness usually appears in adolescence or adulthood, family members are often in disbelief and the family unit is shaken. Daily life is often marked by ambivalence, and some will be torn between the rich human experience they have with their loved one and all the suffering generated by the situation.

Initially, communication problems have a significant impact. The person I knew says incoherent things and may behave strangely, to the point where I don’t recognize them anymore. Once independent, I now have to support them in their daily life. What can I do to help and support my loved one who is not well?

First, it is important to understand that family members have a supportive role to play with the person who has a mental health problem. In other words, you should not do things for them but instead accompany them on their journey to recovery. To do this, whether you are a parent, sibling or friend, you need to learn about mental illness, develop coping strategies, set boundaries and work with the professionals involved with your loved one.

There are 48 family organizations across the province to help you develop these skills. Just call CAP santé mentale at 1-855-CRAQUER (272-7837). You will be able to talk to a counsellor who will be there to listen and support you in your particular situation.

Next, in collaboration with your loved one, it is essential to prepare a few key questions* to ask the psychiatrist.

  • What is the diagnosis? What is the nature of this illness, from a medical point of view?
  • In terms of percentage, how sure are you about the diagnosis? If you’re not sure, what else do you think it might be and why?
  • If your current assessment is preliminary, how soon will you be able to make a final assessment of the illness?
  • Which treatment program do you think would be most helpful? What are its benefits?
  • Who can answer our questions when you are not available?
  • How will we know if my loved one is responding positively to the program? How long will it take to see signs of improvement?
  • What is the family’s role in this treatment program? How much access will the family have to those involved in providing treatment?
  • What medication do you plan to use (name, dosage)? What are the biological effects of this medication and what do you expect the results to be? What side effects are associated with the medication?
  • When can we reach you?
  • As an assistant to my loved one, I need help. Can you refer me to the local family and friends organization?

In closing, never forget that despite the fact that prejudice still exists in our society, mental illness is an illness like any other. You have the right to be informed, supported and respected in your role as an assistant.
*Excerpt from “Questions to ask the psychiatrist,” Washington advocates for the mentally ill

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