tired black woman touching head and looking down

Relapse Prevention: Know the Warning Signs

This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. Some of us are aware of mental illness every waking hour because we have a loved one dealing with it. We dread relapses. To help, I’ve collected information from NAMI, Mental Health America and my own reading/experience.

Recognizing the Early Warning Signs

Mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and clinical depression, is usually episodic. The symptoms vary over time. When your loved one experiences another episode, it is commonly called a relapse.

Please note: Persistent symptoms that continue despite the stabilization of the illness are not signs of a relapse, but are treatment-resistant symptoms.  If the symptoms get worse, it’s a relapse.

Before the relapse, people often experience changes in their feelings, thoughts and behaviors. These are early warning signs. Studies indicate between 50% and 70% of people experience early warning signs over a period of one to four weeks before a relapse.

Looking for early warning signs allows you to start working with your loved one and his treatment providers to minimize the setback. Because you are the most frequent contact with your loved one, you are the one who sees the warning signs. The ill person will not be able to see them.  This blog post explains why.

Common Warning Signs

Each person has their own specific signs or “relapse signature.” But some warning signs are common, including:

  • Feelings of tension, anxiousness or worries.
  • More irritability.
  • Increased sleep disturbance (hearing them up in the night).
  • Depression.
  • Social withdrawal (more extreme, not even leaving his room to eat).
  • Concentration problems (taking longer to do tasks, having trouble finishing tasks, having trouble following a conversation or TV show).
  • Decreasing or stopping medication or treatment (refusing to go to the case manager or doctor, skipping the vocational program).
  • Eating less or eating more.
  • Excessively high or low energy.
  • Loss of interest in doing things.
  • Loss of interest in the way he or she looks / poor hygiene.
  • Being afraid of “going crazy.”
  • Becoming excessive in religious practices.
  • Feeling bothered by thoughts that will not go away.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by demands.
  • Expressing worries about physical problems.

Most common relapse indicators for schizophrenia:

  • Restless or unsettled sleep.
  • Nervousness or tension.
  • Having a hard time concentrating.
  • Isolation.
  • Feeling irritable.
  • Having trouble taking care of routine things.
  • A lack of energy.
  • Feeling sad or depressed.
  • Feeling confused.
  • A change in appetite.

Most common relapse indicators for bipolar disorder:

  • Disturbed or lack of sleep.
  • Talking quickly and more often than usual.
  • Acting reckless.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Feeling very depressed.

An Off Day or the Start of a Relapse?

Everyone can have an off day. You can feel down in the dumps, with no energy. Or you can seem a little manic.  If a person has had mental health problems, it’s important to consider whether they are having an off day or starting a relapse.

Early warning signs are:

  • A cluster of changes.
  • Happening together.
  • Lasting over a period of time.
  • Gradually getting worse.
  • Following the same pattern as before.

Your Loved One’s Relapse Signature

Think about the last time your loved one got worse. If you keep a journal, look at what you wrote. It helps to think about:

  • What was the time of year?
  • Did your loved one say how they were feeling physically?
  • How was the mood?  The level of concentration?
  • Did any unusual changes in behavior take place in the weeks before the last relapse?
  • Did your relative do things that seemed “out of character” before the last relapse?
  • Have the same behaviors preceded other relapses?

Thinking about what was happening in the person’s life when you start to notice these changes can help too. 

Next time we’ll talk about what to do when your loved one shows signs of relapse.

Managing Depression and Anxiety

Families who have one or more members with severe, persistent mental illness face unique challenges. Complex family dynamics, social isolation and often unpredictable behavior can take their toll. Other ways that mental health issues impact families include:

  • The family may change its rules or patterns.  The ill person may no longer do chores, and the family may withdraw from social situations.
  • Friends may withdraw from the family.
  • Everyone is walking on eggshells around the person.
  • Family members vent their frustration on non-ill family members.
  • Parents may be stricter with non-struggling children.
  • Family members may blame themselves.
  • Family members may become resentful of the ill person for the disruption the illness has caused.
  • Family members may be ashamed of the ill person’s struggle.

Under these circumstances, the primary caregiver or other family members may develop depression and anxiety. This also impacts the entire family. In fact, the additional stress can be overwhelming. But there is hope. The ideas below come from people who have lived experience, as well as NAMI, Mental Health America and the Veterans Administration.

When You Are Struggling

Learn all you can. If you develop depression or anxiety, learn all you can about the illnesses. Taking good care of yourself is critical to caring for your loved ones. Connect with other people experiencing these issues in support groups or meetings. Attend local mental health conferences and conventions. Build a personal library of useful websites and helpful books. Learning is an active thing you can do that gives you a feeling of control where control is possible. Ideally, you should learn about your loved one’s illness as well as depression and anxiety.

Recognize early symptoms. Identify possible warning signs and triggers that may aggravate your depression or anxiety symptoms. With this knowledge, you can recognize an emerging episode and get the help you need as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family for help—they can help you monitor your symptoms and behavior.

Partner with your health care providers. Give your health care provider all the information he or she needs to help you recover—including any reactions to medications, your symptoms or any triggers you notice. Develop trust and communicate openly.

Know what to do in a crisis. Be familiar with your community’s crisis hotline or emergency walk-in center. Know how to contact them and keep the information handy.

Avoid drugs and alcohol. These substances can disturb emotional balance and interact with medications. You may think using alcohol or drugs will help you “perk up,” but using them can hinder your recovery or make symptoms worse.

Eat well and exercise. To relieve stress, try activities like centering prayer, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.

Deal with unresolved grief.  Do you have a mixture of persistent feelings of sadness, anger and frustration about your loved one’s mental illness?  Seek more help if you know that you are still grieving over the illness.

Helping Another Family Member  

In these circumstances, some family members may develop depression or anxiety. This is a heavy load for a caregiver dealing with another loved one with mental illness. Getting support is essential for you to continue be helpful. Some suggestions include:

Be proactive in keeping the family as strong as possible.

  • Eat, sleep, connect with other people and turn to God.
  • Take a break when needed.
  • Go places as a family even if the ill person does not go.
  • Encourage all family members to continue with regular activities.
  • Know some days are better than others, and all things pass.
  • Consider family therapy.

Learn more about your loved one’s condition. Learning about depression and anxiety will help you better understand and support your loved one.  They do not need to “hit bottom” to get better. In many cases, hitting bottom means suicide.

Communicate.  Speak kindly and honestly. Don’t scold or blame people with depression or urge them to “try harder” to “just be happy.” Instead, make specific offers of help and follow through with those offers. Tell the person you care about them. Ask them how they feel and truly listen.

React calmly and rationally. You can’t fix the person, but you can walk with them through this time. Even if your family member or friend is in a crisis, it’s important to remain calm. Listen to their concerns and make them feel understood—then take the next step toward getting help.

Find emotional support from others. Share your thoughts, fears and questions with other people who have loved ones with similar conditions. If they won’t get help, you should.

Schedule pleasant events and encourage an increased activity level.  Assist your loved one in making plans at specific times and dates to do something pleasant … a walk in the park, a movie, etc.

Correct unhelpful thinking. Help your loved one challenge thoughts about how things “should” be.  You need to learn about cognitive distortions and how to gently help a loved one to understand them.   I recommend reading  “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” or “The Feeling Good Handbook,” both by David D. Burns.

hand coming up from water

Dealing With Depression

Depression and anxiety are now wide-spread problems stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. But caregivers of people with mental illness have often suffered from these issues.

On February 21, 2021, the New York Times published an American Psychological Association poll that said 74 percent of psychologists are seeing more patients with anxiety disorders than before pandemic. Sixty percent were seeing more people with depression. Time Magazine also published this on the increase in depression.

First the good news.

Almost all depression and anxiety conditions are treatable.  But there is no magic fix. These are very complex conditions.  Depression and increased anxiety also can be signs that a person with a more severe diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, is heading into an episode. Let’s take a look at depression first.

Depression … what it is and who gets it

Depression can result from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors, the Veterans Administration website reports. Trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, or any stressful situation may trigger depression, but depression can also occur without an obvious trigger.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 16 million American adults—almost 7% of the population—had at least one major depressive episode in a non-pandemic year. Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression. And young adults aged 18–25 are 60% more likely to have depression than people aged 50 or older.

Depression is frequently under-diagnosed, however. Psychologists estimate that only about one-third (35%) of people with depression ever see a mental health professional.

The Veterans Administration reports that military personnel are prone to depression, at least partially as a result of exposure to traumatic experiences, including witnessing combat and separation from family during deployment or military trainings. Data shows it is five time higher among active duty soldiers and even higher among the previously deployed solders.

Some will only experience one depressive episode in a lifetime, but for most, depressive disorder recurs.

Without treatment, episodes may last a few months to several years.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression can present different symptoms, depending on the person. But for most people, depressive disorder changes how they function day-to-day, and typically for more than two weeks. Common symptoms include:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of energy
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Hopelessness or guilty thoughts
  • Changes in movement (less activity or agitation)
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal thoughts

We are not capable of diagnosing depression, but we can use the SIGECAPS diagnostic tool to determine whether someone should see a doctor. If a person has five or more of these 8 symptoms every day for two weeks, they are likely struggling with a major depression.

SIGECAPS Diagnostic Tool

  • SADNESS / SLEEP INTERRUPTION
  • INTERESTS … lost interest in things that used to enjoy
  • GUILT … ruminating over past perceived failures, character flaws, mistakes
  • ENERGY … noticeable lack of it
  • CONCENTRATION … inability to
  • APPETITE … could be eating more or eating less
  • PSYCHOMOTOR ABNORMALITIES … retardation (slowed speech, slowed movement, shuffling gait, collapsed posture, low voice volume, monotone speech, lack of facial expressions) or agitation (pacing, wringing hands, removing and putting on clothing over and over,
  • SUICIDAL … actively (with a plan), passively (stopped caring whether they live or die) and para (cutting or overdoses that the person knows won’t kill them … a cry for help)

Causes of Depression

Depression does not have a single cause. It can be triggered by a life crisis, physical illness or something else. But it can also occur spontaneously. Scientists believe several factors can contribute to depression:

  • Trauma. When people experience trauma at an early age, it can cause long-term changes in how their brains respond to fear and stress. These changes may lead to depression.
  • Genetics. Mood disorders, such as depression, tend to run in families.
  • Life circumstances. Marital status, relationship changes, financial standing and where a person lives influence whether a person develops depression.
  • Brain changes. Imaging studies have shown that the frontal lobe of the brain becomes less active when a person is depressed. Depression is also associated with changes in how the pituitary gland and hypothalamus respond to hormone stimulation.
  • Other medical conditions. People who have a history of sleep disturbances, medical illness, chronic pain, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to develop depression. Some medical syndromes (like hypothyroidism) can mimic depressive disorder. Some medications can also cause symptoms of depression.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.  About one-third of people with substance abuse problems also have depression. This requires coordinated treatment for both conditions, as alcohol can worsen symptoms.

Treatments for Depression

After an assessment rules out medical and other possible causes, a patient-centered treatment plans can include any or a combination of the following:

  • Psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, family-focused therapy and interpersonal therapy.
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has a strong research base to show it helps with symptoms of depression. This therapy helps assess and change negative thinking patterns associated with depression. The goal of this structured therapy is to recognize negative thoughts and to teach coping strategies. CBT is often time-limited and may be limited to 8–16 sessions in some instances. 
    • Interpersonal therapy (IPT) focuses on improving problems in personal relationships and other changes in life that may be contributing to depressive disorder. Therapists teach individuals to evaluate their interactions and to improve how they relate to others. IPT is often time-limited like CBT.
    • Psychodynamic therapy is a therapeutic approach rooted in recognizing and understanding negative patterns of behavior and feelings that are rooted in past experiences and working to resolve them. Looking at a person’s unconscious processes is another component of this psychotherapy. It can be done in short-term or longer-term modes. 
  • Medications including antidepressants, mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medications.
  • Exercise can help with prevention and mild-to-moderate symptoms.
  • Psychoeducation and support groups
  • Brain stimulation therapies can be tried if psychotherapy and/or medication are not effective. These include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depressive disorder with psychosis or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) for severe depression.
    • Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) involves transmitting short electrical impulses into the brain. ECT does cause some side effects, including memory loss. Individuals should understand the risks and benefits of this intervention before beginning a treatment trial.
    • Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) is a relatively new type of brain stimulation that uses a magnet instead of an electrical current to activate the brain. It is not effective as a maintenance treatment.
  • Light therapy, which uses a light box to expose a person to full spectrum light in an effort to regulate the hormone melatonin.
  • Alternative approaches including acupuncture, meditation and nutrition can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan, but do not yet have strong scientific backing.

Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern

Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD) is characterized by recurrent episodes of depression in late fall and winter, alternating with periods of normal mood the rest of the year.

Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health were the first to suggest this condition was a response to decreased light and experimented with the use of bright light to address the symptoms. Scientists have identified that the neurotransmitter serotonin may not be working optimally in many people who experience this disorder.

The prevalence of this condition appears to vary with latitude, age and sex:

  • Prevalence increases among people living in higher/northern latitudes.
  • Younger persons are at higher risk.
  • Women are more likely than men to experience this condition.

Symptoms

This disorder’s most common presentation is of an atypical depression. With classic depression, people tend to lose weight and sleep less. This condition is the kind of atypical depression often seen in bipolar disorder—people tend to gain weight and sleep more.

Although not everyone experiences all the following symptoms, the classic characteristics of Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern include:

  • Hypersomnia (or oversleeping)
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Overeating
  • Weight gain
  • Craving carbohydrates

Many people may experience other symptoms as well, including:

  • Decreased sexual interest
  • Lethargy
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Lack of interest in usual activities and decreased socialization

Diagnosis

The key to an accurate diagnose of this condition is recognizing its pattern. Symptoms usually begin in October/November and subside in March/April. Some people begin to experience a “slump” as early as August, while others remain well until January. Regardless of the time of onset, most people don’t feel fully “back to normal” until early May.

For a diagnosis to be made, this pattern of onset and remission must have occurred during at least a two-year period, without the occurrence of any non-seasonal episodes during that same period.

This means you will not receive this diagnosis the first time you experience symptoms. If you believe you may have a seasonal depressive pattern, it’s important to pay attention to the pattern. Track your symptoms, noting when they begin and when they subside. This self-awareness can help. Mental health professionals will ask you about your observations and also your family history since mood disorders tend to run in families.

Treatment

As with most depressive disorders, the best treatment includes a combination of antidepressant medications, cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise. Unlike other depressive disorders, this condition can also be treated with light therapy. Light therapy consists of regular, daily exposure to a “light box,” which artificially simulates high-intensity sunlight.

If you know you have a seasonal pattern, ask yourself “How can I plan for this?” Because this disorder has a specific pattern, those who experience it can prepare for its arrival in the following ways, for example:

  • Exercise more toward the end of summer
  • Get into therapy around September
  • Start your lightbox in October
  • Plan a vacation to a sunny spot in January