Dossier: Strong mind

Mental illness: help for friends and family

Sorgen, Ängste, Ohnmacht: Living with people struggling with their mental health can cause worry, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness. But it is often only the patients themselves who get help, while friends and family have to suffer alone. Where can they find advice and support?

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Unsplash

She’s not the person I married, it’s not my child, my father, my friend: If a close family member falls ill, it can turn the world on its head not only for the patient but also those around them. “It’s painful to see how a loved one changes as a result of a mental illness. Friends and family often feel helpless,” says Yvonne Schwarzer from VASK Zurich.

The VASK Switzerland umbrella organisation brings together the regional and cantonal associations of relatives of mentally ill people. “And they also feel responsible for that person’s well-being and all that this involves. Estimates indicate that relatives are responsible for 70% of the care needed for people struggling with their mental health.” Schwarzer has first-hand experience. She is not only affected herself, but also runs the VASK Zurich helpline. Every day she hears countless stories of people struggling with their daily lives. “It can quickly become too much for friends and family. They only function on autopilot.”

Will it ever stop?

Parents, siblings and partners, but also friends turn to the helpline for advice. What do they have in common? Constant concern for the person suffering. The worries are ever present: during the day, when they go to bed and when they get up in the morning. Common questions include: Will my son ever be happy again? Will my partner ever be able to return to work? How will we manage financially in the future? What will happen if my mum is sectioned? And afterwards? And just generally: Will the suffering ever come to an end? 

Of course, Yvonne Schwarzer can’t answer all these questions in a 45-minute chat. But she can give them confidence and show understanding: “These people are primarily looking for someone to talk to who understands their situation. And it gives them peace of mind to have a number they can always call if they need to.” 

Non-stop worries

A sounding board – friends and family of patients can sometimes go unnoticed, with little time or energy remaining for their needs and worries in everyday life. Schwarzer says: “Of course, the family member suffering from depression or schizophrenia gets all the attention. They often only think of themelves and behave inconsiderately. They get treatment and are supported by doctors. But what about their partner or mother who is suffering as a result of the illness? They are often forgotten.”

Relatives should seek help at the latest when their thoughts constantly revolve around their loved one’s illness, because the constant worry will make them sick, too. As Schwarzer says, during therapy it’s important to talk not only about the patient’s needs, but their own needs, too. “Many people find this difficult. After all, they are not clinically ill, but now find themselves in the spotlight.”

In addition to advice and therapy, it can also help to talk in a self-help group. That’s why VASK Zurich offers guided meetings. “It doesn’t really matter what the particular mental health problems are, the worries and fears are all the same,” says Yvonne Schwarzer. As well as being worried about the patient, they also blame themselves: Is it my fault? Did I notice the changes too late? What did I do wrong? “These thoughts make you feel bad but won’t make the illness disappear,” says Schwarzer matter-of-factly. “There’s no point looking back. You’ve got to try to look to the future.” 

“You shouldn’t always be having to bite your tongue.”
Yvonne Schwarzer, head of the VASK Zurich helpline

Courage and strength

But how can you make sure that you don’t neglect your own well-being when the going gets tough and daily life is stressful? “Try not to take the difficult behaviour of the person struggling with their mental health personally,” says Schwarzer. It’s also important to understand that you can’t change the perception of a person suffering from depression or schizophrenia. But you also have to express your own needs. “You shouldn’t always be having to bite your tongue.”

It is important to draw boundaries, explains Schwarzer, as she recalls a case where the parents of a mentally ill man suffered greatly because he kept walking into their house unannounced. ​ Even as parents, you have to be able to say a clear “No”. “It’s a long and difficult journey that takes courage and strength. You have to find a balance: You shouldn’t take on all the responsibility, and should encourage the patient to take on responsibility for themselves. Eventually you’ll regain more freedom.”

It may be a good idea to repeat Yvonne Schwarzer’s mantra now and again: “Patients feel better if their friends and family are happy.”