Stigma around mental illnesses delays treatment, expert warns

Psychiatrist holds talk on how families can help in recovery process

Ishrat Ansari February 28, 2017
Dr Ambareen told participants of the session that they need to support family members with mental illnesses. PHOTO: STOCK IMAGE

KARACHI: Some of Naureen's family members are tired of her mental illness and secretly wish that she dies. She suffers from schizophrenia and was forcefully committed to a rehabilitation centre two-weeks-ago.

Her brother, Nasir Rafiq, who recently returned from Australia, was shocked to find out that Naureen won't be attending their sister's wedding.

"A few of our family members are in fact waiting for her death. Naureen is a year older than me and my heart breaks every time I see her but I have not given up hope just yet and am optimistic that she will be able to live a normal and happy life," Rafiq told The Express Tribune at The Recovery House (TRH), a psychiatric rehabilitation centre, on Sunday.

Nasir was present at the centre to attend a talk on 'Supporting Your Family Member's Recovery from Mental Illness,' where psychiatrist Dr Uzma Ambareen discussed the crucial role of family in a patient's recovery.

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Discussing the concept of recovery, Dr Ambareen - who is also TRH's medical director - said recovery is only possible if we know how to support our family member.

"This session is not a scientific one but it's more about using common sense to support a sick family member," she explained. Family support is an asset, she said, adding that it is always one step forward and two steps back.

"Recovery is a long journey and for family members, it's more like a crisis," said Dr Ambareen.

Concept of recovery
Recovery is a transformation and it involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one's life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.

Dr Ambareen elaborated that recovery for the sufferer means a transformation of the self, acceptance of one's limitations, a new way of life, willingness to take on challenges and regaining the ability to hope and dream.

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She said support does not mean control and the existence of mental illness is no one's 'fault'. Blame does not help, she said, adding that acceptance of the illness is very important.

Supporting a family member
Recovery takes time, so go slow and be patient, advised Dr Ambareen, adding that this is a lifelong process and there are ups and downs.

"There are patients who cannot recover completely but some of them can recover 90% so there is there always hope," she said.

She advised families not to buy into stigma attached to mental illness, which basically begins with people close to the patient. "Stigma delays the help-seeking process as families don't seek professional help and wait for a crisis to come," she lamented.

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Dr Ambareen suggested giving patients space and not to be over protective, as they should be given privacy too.

She said families must lower their expectations from the patient. "Faith helps us cope with the illness and helps us accept our disease," she said.

Dealing with a relapse
Dr Ambareen said relapse is one of the biggest issues most patients face but they need to be trained to recognise the signs of a relapse.

"Not taking medicine as prescribed, weather changes, substance abuse or drugs, any positive or negative changes can trigger a relapse," she said, adding that the family needs to be involved in the patient's treatment plan.