It gets joked about often, but family get-togethers around the holidays can be seriously high-stress affairs. While schizophrenia certainly shouldn’t be the focus of your winter gatherings, it can be another thing to add to the list of holiday worries—the eight hour drive across the state, the cooking of the holiday ham, and wondering how your sister-in-law and her ex are going to behave at the massive Christmas dinner.
This is not to dismiss the seriousness of the disease, but rather to recognize that your loved one coping with schizophrenia is not defined by their disease, and that it shouldn’t be viewed as a scourge upon your family during the holiday season. Instead, family members should focus on taking simple measures to make the holidays a little less stressful for their loved one facing mental illness, as well as everyone involved. Here are a few things you can do to support your family member.
Ask what type of holiday get-together is appealing to them: Seeing certain family members in the chaotic social environment of a huge party can be grating for everyone, and it could be a potential trigger for erratic behavior for your schizophrenic loved one. Ask your loved one what sort of get together or Christmas event is more appealing to them, and use your own judgment to inform this decision as well. While you don’t have to rearrange a family tradition, a potentially less-stressful gathering could be added to the schedule as well.
Talk to any family members who are unsure about how to treat your loved one: After a cousin of mine was diagnosed with schizophrenia, our grandmother would talk to him in an overly loud, simplistic voice, like he was a visiting foreign exchange student. This fact alone kept him from wanting to attend any sort of family gathering, until someone kindly told grandma that he could hear quite well, after all.
Consider speaking to any family members in private who still aren’t sure about how to approach your loved one. You can do this discreetly, and without making a fuss—just focus on telling them to act normally!
Structure gatherings in low-stress settings: This goes along with the first tip, but with the added mention of considering the surroundings and external elements of holiday parties just as much as the people who will be attending. Having a party in a large hall or restaurant can be loud, chaotic, and unnecessarily stressful. Serving alcohol and having your Uncle Bob get trashed and ask to dance with every cousin at the table is embarrassing. Remove external stressors if you can, if you feel like it would help.
Don’t coddle or pity them in public situations: The last thing anyone suffering from a serious mental illness wants is to be treated obviously and embarrassingly different in front of others. While family might have a tendency to innocently ask how they are coping in hushed, puppy-dog voices, this will only serve to single out your loved one and make them feel like the unwanted center of attention.
Avoid focusing on the illness, but keep helpful contacts on hand: The point of the holidays is to enjoy the family and friends who mean the most to you. As I said before, your loved one’s schizophrenia should never unnecessarily become the center of a holiday gathering. Enjoy them, and enjoy each other.
If a situation does become too much for you or your family to handle, however, you want to be able to help your family member in the best way possible. Don’t wait until their behavior is spinning out of control to call their therapist or other physician for help. Keep the important phone numbers nearby, just in case.