THE BLOG
01/23/2015 03:25 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Who Cares for the Caregiver?

Mark Lukach's article "My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward" has been making the rounds on social media for the past few weeks. It is an honest and painful read. As the title implies, Lukach writes about his experiences with his wife's psychiatric problems. Her diagnosis: depression with psychotic features. Reading it, I was struck by the depths of his love and devotion to his wife. And I was also concerned for him and for all caregivers of the chronically ill.

Yes, psychiatric problems can be difficult for the mental health consumer, but the consumer does not experience their symptoms in a vacuum. Their loved ones, family (spouses, children, extended family) and friends, are also impacted. As a bipolar sufferer, I try to be cognizant of how my illness impacts my loved ones. I've also tried to think about what I would tell other consumers' loved ones as well as my own about self-care.

So this article is for you, the caregiver.

Here are some tips to ensure that you effectively care for yourself while providing for your loved one:

  • Don't neglect your own needs: Get adequate sleep, eat regularly, and keep up with your own health needs (such as doctor's appointments, taking any prescribed medicine, exercise, etc).
  • Invest in self-care. In other articles I've written about the importance of self-care for the consumer, but caregivers also need to make self-care a priority. Self-care is whatever you do that puts you first and soothes you: listen to music, make a spa appointment, go for a walk, meditate, read a book, eat your favorite meal, take a vacation. In short, do something you love.
  • Seek out support groups. There are lots of support group organizations. There's Depression and Bipolar Support (DBSA) or National Alliance on Mental Illness Family Support Group (NAMI). And because a large percentage of mental health consumers also deal with alcohol or substance abuse, you can also check out Nar-Anon or Al-Anon. A simple Google search will yield even more support group organizations.
  • Find your own therapist. I don't mean couple's therapy or family therapy. But a therapist all your own. Everyone can benefit from having an ear to vent to and problem solve with.
  • Spend time away from your loved one. Yes, you are entitled to take a break.
  • Learn your loved one's signals. He or she might not always know when an episode is looming, but if you've lived through a previous episode or hospitalization, you probably know what to look out for.
  • Be patient, understanding, and kind with your loved one. Everyone needs extra nurturing when not at their best.
  • Be patient, understanding, and kind with yourself. You won't have all the answers. You won't always know what to say or do. You might get frustrated or overwhelmed. Don't beat yourself up.
  • Know your limits and enlist help when you need it. Help from family, friends, mental health doctors and providers. You don't have to think of yourself as a fixer.

In addition to everything above, the following are specific to romantic partners:

  • Depending on your loved one's diagnosis, he or she might have mood swings or easily get angry or irritable. Try not to take it personally. With your partner, create coping strategies to handle emotional outbursts.
  • Again, depending on the diagnosis or even as a side effect from certain medicines, your loved one's libido can be impacted. Both extremes are possible: too much of a sex drive (hypersexual) or too low of a sex drive. Be patient. If a low sex drive is a problem, find non-sexual ways to be intimate.
  • Be sure to keep the lines of communication open and honest. Listen to your loved one's concerns about his or her care, but also make your concerns known too.

If your loved one hasn't told you lately: You are important, you are valued, you are making a difference. Being a caregiver is a tough role. So don't neglect your own needs and your own life in the process of providing love and care to others. I love the airplane analogy about responsibility and help: In emergencies, you are exhorted to put your oxygen mask on first before assisting those around you. Be sure to take care of you.