Handling the Symptoms of Mental Illness
Note: The information is from NAMI, Mental Health America, “When Someone You Love has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis, “The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia” by Dr. Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich, and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It also reflects what I have learned through personal experience.
Some questions that I have heard in our support group include:
- “What do I say when she says someone on television is sending her secret messages?”
- “What do I do when he gets the locks changed because he thinks the FBI is trying to get into our house?”
- “What do I do when he disassembles the pipes to find out where the voices are coming from?”
All these questions are related to delusions and hallucinations, which are symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (in some cases) and other forms of mental illness.
Three factors that can influence symptoms are inadequate medication, substance abuse, and high levels of stress. About half the people with schizophrenia have symptoms most or all the time, even with medication. Symptoms also can be signs of relapse coming.
Even if your loved one doesn’t have these symptoms, you may be called on to give advice at some point. Of course, we always point people to the experts. But it can be hard to get solid advice from a visit to a psychiatrist or to talk to a social worker. So I’m providing the information that I have collected and used in real-world situations as support.
Responding to Delusions and Hallucinations
People vary in their sensitivity about their delusions or hallucinations. Previous medical history is a fairly good predictor of this. Some signs that a hallucination is taking place include when your loved one is:
- Talking to themselves as if responding to questions or comments, but not in a conversational way, such as: “Where did I put my purse?”
- Staring into space, or being distracted or preoccupied.
- Laughing for no apparent reason.
- Appearing to see something that you can’t see.
Hallucinations and delusions often start out as benign, but can become more troubling over time.
People can learn to deal with hallucinations through therapy (including cognitive behavioral therapy), medication, ignoring the hallucination, telling the voices to leave them alone or playing music loudly. Shifting attention to music or television can help. Working toward acceptance through prayer also helps.
Principles to Keep in Mind
When you are dealing with a loved one who seems delusional or may be having auditory or visual hallucinations, there are some basic principles to keep in mind.
While the things they say that they see, hear or believe are not apparent to you and may not make sense, they are very real to that person. They actually hear voices and see images. They believe the things they are telling you. Do not dismiss or minimize the impact of this. Do not get into an argument about whether the voices are real.
Research shows that confronting people about their delusions may result in an initial decrease of belief in them, followed by a rebound that makes the belief in the delusion stronger. This discredits you. If you are forced to take a stand on this situation, just say that you know the experience is true for them.
People, particularly those who have been in treatment for some time, may not be entirely convinced that the delusion or hallucination is true. They know that this can be a symptom of their illness. If they check with you to see if what they are seeing or hearing is true, you can tell them that it is likely that this is a trick that their mind is playing or whatever term is comfortable for them.
Respond to the Emotional State
A variety of emotional states accompany delusions and hallucinations, ranging from pleasure to terror. It’s more important to respond to the emotional state you detect than to the content of the delusion or hallucination. Use listening skills like paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions to reflect what you hear. Ask: “What can I do to help you feel safe?”
You can ask if the person is seeing or hearing something. Try to get enough information to determine how they are feeling and focus on that.
Do not make fun of the person or try to have a lengthy conversation about the content of the hallucination.
Keep in mind that your statements may be confusing to the person as well. If a voice is saying that you are going to kill him, and you are saying everything is fine. You see the problem.
This is the first of a series on handling the symptoms of mental illness with your loved one. Next time: responding to agitation and hypomania. As always, if you can get advice from the medical team treating your loved one, use that advice instead.