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Let’s make caregiving a noble job

By Raymond Anthony Fernando, Mental Health Advocate & Caregiver

Taking care of a loved one with a physical illness is no easy task. However, in my opinion, caring for a loved one with mental illness can be even more challenging, especially when your loved one has a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

This is because the symptoms of mental illness can vary from person to person and the behaviour of persons with mental illness can be unpredictable. Thus, it is important for caregivers to read up as much as they can and to learn the skills of supporting their loved ones with mental disorders.

Regrettably, many people often view caregiving as a burden, rather than a responsibility. That responsibility I took seriously when I married my wife, Doris Lau Siew Lang, 40 years ago, despite knowing that she had schizophrenia.  In my four decades of caring for my late wife, she had 15 relapses, 12 of which required hospitalisation.

During those trying times, I became her emotional ‘punching bag’ when she was not in the correct state of mind.  Recalling my marriage vows which I took on 26 November 1974:  “To love and care for my wife in sickness and in health, for better or for worse…”  I cast away my fears and prayed.  That marriage commitment, combined with my daily prayers and the support of healthcare workers at IMH, helped bring Doris back to her normal bubbly self. 
I have also experienced first-hand that whenever Doris encountered a physical condition with prolonged and intense pain, it would trigger a relapse of her mental illness.

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Here are some tips to bring out the best in your care recipients.

Observe the 3Ps – Patience, Perseverance & Prayer

In caring for your loved ones with mental illness, it’s important to observe the 3Ps Patience, Perseverance and Prayer. 

Medication compliance

Many patients suffering from mental illness have relapses because they don’t take their medications faithfully. It is very important that caregivers ensure that the patient takes his/her medications every day. One of the best ways to ensure that the medications are taken correctly is to make a list of the medications that is prescribed and display it in an area where the tablets are stored. If necessary, indicate the colour of the medicines and a brief description of it. Then place the supply in small containers and label them accordingly – morning, afternoon and night.  

A big NO, NO to taking slimming pills

Due to some side effects of the medications, some patients may put on weight. As a result, patients, especially ladies who are conscious of their figure, may resort to taking slimming pills. This should not be encouraged as slimming pills can affect the mind and even trigger a relapse of their mental illness. Instead, regular exercise that could include brisk walks at lunch time and jogging after work are far better. 

Don’t criticise, empathise

All of us have feelings and are sensitive. Psychiatric patients too, have feelings and can easily get hurt. Some could be hyper-sensitive, so we should not criticise them when they are not in control of their minds. Instead, empathise with them as they go through their treatment.

Bring music and laughter into their lives

Bring humour into the lives of psychiatric patients. Bring them to watch a humorous movie. Crack a joke at the start of the day and the rest of the day will be a happier one.  

Research has also shown that listening to music can effectively promote relaxation and overall mental health as it reduces muscle tension and stress. 

Have sufficient rest and sleep

Sufficient sleep helps the body and mind to relax and gives patients the energy to start a brand new day without feeling too drowsy from the effects of the medications. On the other hand, sleeping too much can be unhealthy as it can make patients lethargic and lose interest in daily activities.

Avoid crowded places when they are unwell

Caregivers should avoid bringing their loved ones who are heading for a relapse to crowded places, as they can become fearful and tend to imagine that “people are talking about them.” This was part of the hallucinations Doris experienced when she was unwell. 

Install double-glazed windows in the sleeping area

Doris found it irritating when there was excessive noise and would frown and express her displeasure. When there is excessive noise, Doris was at high risk of falling into a relapse. So I installed doubled-glazed windows that reduced the noise to 50%.

Give feedback to the doctors and nurses

Family members who want their loved ones to have a speedy recovery must not be afraid to provide the correct feedback to the hospital staff. If the family members are unable to see the doctors, they should write a letter and forward it to the nurses on duty so that the doctor can find out what is troubling the patient. 

Caregivers must also closely monitor the patient’s behaviour when they visit them in hospital and when they are given home leave. The information gathered should then be passed on to the doctors and nurses so that they are better positioned to treat the patient. 

Keep the person free from seeing or reading negative things

Persons suffering from mental illness should not read or see negative things. Instead, they should be encouraged to read articles on the arts and happy events. Humorous movies or television shows that are comical will encourage patients to stay happy.  

Watch out for warning signs

Caregivers must stay alert and look out for any early warning signs that their loved ones display. For example, when my wife took too long to bathe or when she complained of headaches and could not sleep for more than two days, I knew that all was not well. At those times, I quickly brought her to see the psychiatrist who would then adjust her medications. 

Hide your own feelings when you are sad, as their recovery will be slow

Even though caregivers may be heartbroken to see their loved ones hospitalised, it is best not to cry or display any sadness in front of them, as such emotions will not help in their recovery.  
 

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