Struggling with mental illness can be a very heart-wrenching and difficult experience for a patient. According to a report by the World Health Organization, depression, a form of mental illness, is one of the leading causes of disability.
The organization also states that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds worldwide.
What’s more, people with severe mental health conditions die prematurely - as much as two decades early - due to preventable physical conditions.
The burden of the disease can therefore be heavily felt by those surrounding the patient, especially family members who live with and interact with the patient on a daily basis.
We spoke to Nairobi-based Psychologist Dr. Susan Gitau, a lecturer at the Nazarene University and the Founder of The Susan Gitau Foundation, a counseling organization that focuses on mental health interventions among members of the society.
Dr. Gitau outlined tips that family members should consider while trying to help a mental illness patient.
Know the signs and symptoms of mental illness
Dr. Gitau urges family members to look out for signs and symptoms of mental illness. These may differ according to the type of mental illness. In terms of depression, the symptoms to look out for include low interest in activities they normally enjoy, loss of appetite, easily getting tired, and being tearful, nervous, and irritable.
“Depression is the most common type of mental illness in Kenya, so it is crucial that family members familiarize themselves with these symptoms.”
Acknowledge that the person is suffering from a mental illness
According to the psychologist, once the patient is diagnosed with a mental illness, the next step is accepting that the person is suffering from the disease. She says that it is common for family members to live in denial about these types of diseases.
“Once you confirm that the person has a health problem, the first thing family members should do is accept that reality. This goes a long way in helping the person deal with the illness. Oftentimes, families that fail to accept the diagnosis end up hurting this person knowingly and unknowingly.”
Ensure they take their medicine and go to clinic at the proposed time
It is crucial that family members ensure that the patient takes their medicine as advised by the doctor, without fail.
According to Dr. Gitau, the family members should also ensure that the patients visit the hospital for follow-up and check-up as required.
“The complexity of mental illnesses means that they need to be regularly seen by a doctor and also need to take their medication. It is therefore imperative to ensure the patient takes their medicine as prescribed by the doctor.”
Keep Items that Can be Used as Weapons Away
Dr. Gitau urges those living with a mentally ill patient to ensure the house is safe, especially for those living with patients who tend to be violent.
Family members are urged to make sure dangerous items such as knives, machetes and guns are out of sight and reach.
“If there are any hazards or areas that family members believe need to be modified, make sure these are done as soon as possible. Move any item that the patient may use in case of a violent episode.”
Remove locks in rooms frequently used by the patient
The psychologist urges people living with a mental illness to ensure the rooms, especially the patient’s room does not have locks. She explains that mentally ill people need to spend time in rooms that are not easily locked, so as to allow others in the home to easily get to the patients.
“Mentally ill people, especially those suffering from depression should not be left alone in a lockable room. It is not unusual to hear of patients who committed suicide in the same house where their loved ones were.”
Dr. Gitau advises family members to undergo counseling once they confirm the patient’s diagnosis.
“Caring for a person with a mental health problem can be an overwhelming task to the caregivers. This can end up affecting their mental wellbeing, which can make them bitter. Going for counseling as a caregiver is important for all parties involved.”
Like any other disease, mental illness is difficult for the patient, and kindness and compassion from their loved ones go a way in helping the patient heal.
According to the psychologist, kindness helps the entire family cope better with the disease, especially on the part of the patient.
"Kindness means acting in favour of the mentally ill patient's well being before your own. This helps in boosting our general mental and spiritual happiness for all parties involved."