For the media

Caring for someone with a mental illness

By The Health News Team | November 25, 2019
Father and son walking through a Sharp HealthCare campus

Caring for someone with a mental illness is a demanding role, and caregivers may experience stigma that other caregivers of ill loved ones don’t experience.
According to Dr. Christina Huang, a clinical health psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, recognizing your emotions is the first step to being an effective caregiver.
“Guilt is a prominent emotion that many caregivers experience, often due to the nature of their role or because of the stress,” says Dr. Huang. “Many caregivers struggle with admitting that they’d rather have a different life, which isn’t to say that they don’t want to care for their family member, but it is a very sacrificing role.”
These feelings are OK to have, she says, particularly when caring for someone with a mental health diagnosis, which can often lead to compassion fatigue earlier given the absence of a visual reminder of the disease.
“The next step is to do your research and gain an understanding of the illness and mental health system, which will help you gain a sense of control and empowerment that can help reduce any negative feelings you may have,” says Dr. Huang.

Make a plan

Dr. Huang recommends the following six ways to organize your research and the information you collect from doctors, mental health organizations and online sources.

  1. Keep handy a list of important phone numbers, including the number of the case manager, doctor, hospital, support groups, etc.

  2. Have an up-to-date list of medications your loved one is prescribed.

  3. Create a plan of action in case of an emergency. Make a written agreement with the person you are caring for and find a friend or family member who is able to step in if you are unable to continue care.

  4. Keep a diary of any problems, details or symptoms you need to ask about. Often, the more information you can give to the health care providers, the better they can manage the right treatment.

  5. Learn about different treatment options, including medications, group programs, home health or transportation options.

  6. Research local professional and community support services for caregivers and people with mental illness, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“By learning about the different treatments and resources available and preparing yourself, you can relieve some of the pressures of caregiving and build a team of support around you,” says Dr. Huang.

Make time for self-care

Dr. Huang often uses the analogy of putting on your oxygen mask first when on an airplane. If you exhaust yourself, you are of no help to anyone else around you. These five tips can help you recharge and prevent burnout.

  1. Take a break. Recognize your limits. No one can be a caregiver every minute of every day.

  2. Exercise regularly. This can be as simple as hiking, gardening or anything that engages your muscles. Even if you have chronic pain, it’s best to do some light stretches.

  3. Relaxation. Spend time reading, take a bath, listen to your favorite music or anything else that can help you slow down.

  4. Balanced diet. It is important to eat well-balanced meals to help you maintain energy levels.

  5. Find support. It is important to talk to a friend or find a local support group. Sharing your experience, as well as having some time to focus on yourself, can relieve pressure and stress, bring you comfort and strength, and reduce feelings of isolation.

“Many caregivers worry that taking time for themselves will take away from the person they are caring for,” says Dr. Huang. “Often, caring for ourselves makes us more effective at caring for others.”

Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital offers a monthly
Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Support Group to support patients and their families.

Christina Huang

Dr. Christina Huang


Dr. Christina Huang is a clinical health psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital in COG-IOP, a program that specializes in treating severe mood and personality disorders. She is also a Sharp Health News contributor.

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