DEAR KELLY: I'm 15 years old and I come from a big family with lots of cousins and relatives. My older cousin, who is 19, was just diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I'm kind of freaking out.
I don't know anything about this and why he has it. We will see them at Christmastime and I'm kind of scared because I don't know if he will act or do anything weird. I don't want to do the wrong thing, but I'm not sure what the right thing is. What is schizophrenia, what do I say or do around him, and is this something he will have forever or just for a while?
DEAR SG: Schizophrenia is a very complex mental illness that can be hard to understand. It can be challenging to be around the person sometimes because their behavior can be erratic. The best thing you can do is just what you are doing – educate yourself about the disease so you feel knowledgeable about what is happening to your cousin.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects 2.4 million American adults over age 18. Although it affects men and women with equal frequency, schizophrenia most often appears in men in their late teens or early 20s, while it appears in women in their late 20s or early 30s.
Schizophrenia interferes with a person's ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. When it is not treated, schizophrenia impairs a person's ability to function to their potential. The illness may cause unusual, inappropriate and sometimes unpredictable and disorganized behavior. People with the disorder may hear voices other people don't hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them. This can scare people with the illness and cause them to withdraw or become agitated.
People with schizophrenia may not make sense when they talk. Sometimes they may seem distant, detached, or preoccupied. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes a person with schizophrenia can seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking about and the bizarre thoughts they are having.
Finding the causes for schizophrenia is be difficult, as the cause and course of the illness is unique to each person. Research has linked schizophrenia to a multitude of possible causes, including genetics, aspects of brain chemistry and structure, as well as environmental causes. Unfortunately, no single, simple course of treatment exists. There are certain medications they may be giving to your cousin that will help with the hallucinations and breaks in reality.
Proper treatment helps relieve many symptoms, but most people who have the disorder cope with symptoms throughout their lives. Since the disease can vary so much in functioning levels, some people with schizophrenia lead independent lives while others need care and assistance from professionals or relatives.
The most common complaint among friends and family members of a person with schizophrenia is not understanding how to help them. Your cousin may seem a little different or removed from everyone. Perhaps he may seem a little more quiet or difficult to talk to, but don't let that stop you from trying to talk with him.
Start with a simple question like, "How have you been lately?" See how he answers that. If you get a short answer, that seems like he isn't interested in talking, be OK with that. If he engages with you and talks freely, be yourself and just have a normal conversation with him. Avoid bringing up anything about the disease because he may be struggling with accepting the diagnosis and it may agitate him or make him uncomfortable.
Schizophrenics struggle with communication and he might not be in a place to carry on a normal conversation. If he talks about something that is strange or weird, wait until he is done talking, then politely excuse yourself. It is very important not to challenge the person's beliefs or delusions. They are very "real" to the person who experiences them, and there's little point in arguing with them about the delusions or false beliefs.
Many people with family members who have schizophrenia find support groups helpful and insightful on how others have coped with the illness. More than 1,000 such groups affiliated with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill are active in all 50 states. Members of these groups share information and strategies for everything from coping with symptoms to finding financial, medical, and other resources. Their website, www.nami.org, can be a good resource for you or others in your family.
Your cousin's journey, and his family's journey with him, will be filled with ups and downs. The best thing you can offer is love, support and encouragement. Don't judge him based on his illness. Treat him like he is a member of your family who deserves to be treated with patience, consideration and kindness.