6 Ways to Become an Ally to Someone Recovering from Psychosis

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If your loved one is experiencing psychosis due to bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another mental illness, here's how you can support them through their treatment and recovery.

Living with an illness that at times affects your behavior is challenging. Those of us with lived experience with psychosis have similar stories of being shunned or abandoned by friends and family. I believe that this happens because people don’t know how to be an ally to those recovering from psychosis.

What is psychosis?

According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), “During a period of psychosis, a person’s thoughts and perceptions are disturbed, and the individual may have difficulty understanding what is real and what is not.” They go on to say, “Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation. A person in a psychotic episode also may experience depression, anxiety, sleep problems, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and difficulty functioning overall.”

I live with bipolar disorder and have experienced psychosis several times. At one time I believed that I could communicate telepathically with cars and I didn’t need to look both ways or be careful crossing the street. Another time, I believed that God wanted me to give away all my money, so I drained $6000 from my bank account and gave it away to people on the street. When I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 16, most of my friends dropped out of my life. This was devastating and I hope that education will help prevent others with mental illness from losing their social networks.

Here are six ways you can be an ally to those recovering from psychosis.

1. Educate yourself about psychosis and your friend or loved one's illness.

Websites like the National Institute of Mental Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association can help familiarize you with illnesses that cause psychosis such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

2. Get to know the warning signs that your loved one may be heading toward a psychotic episode.

Some of my warning signs include fast speech and excessively and obsessively writing things down. This may entail a frank discussion with your friend or loved one.

3. Learn mental health first aid.

You may be able to help a friend or loved one who is undergoing psychosis. Check for resources in your region. This website is a good start. 

4. Understand that psychosis will affect your friend's behavior and respond with compassion.

Behavior must be dealt with accordingly in the moment, but the consequences of the behavior should be mitigated by the fact that your friend or loved one was ill and would not have chosen to behave in that manner if they were well. Though the behavior may be painful for you, try to remember that your friend or loved one wasn't being willfully hurtful. Your friend may be feeling guilt, remorse, and shame for behavior beyond their control.

5. Spend time with your friend or loved one during their treatment and recovery process.

Be on their team. Don't just visit while your friend is in the hospital. Don't tell your friend or loved one to go for a walk, go for a walk with them. Don't tell them to treat themselves, bring them a treat. If your friend can't leave the house, sit with them, and maybe crack a few jokes. Over time, your relationship could become even stronger than it was before you understood that they experience psychosis.

6. Consider getting out and volunteering for festivals or charitable organizations with your friend.

Many people who live with mental illness struggle with loneliness. Often, those who are recovering from an episode of psychosis will isolate themselves. This will often create spirals of self-doubt and depression. The idea of getting out there alone can be daunting. The benefits of getting involved in the community and helping others for me include breaking me out of self-shame and doubt spirals. Helping others always gets me out of my head and helps me put my troubles into perspective. If you can help your friend or loved one have the confidence to get out into the community, you can help them enrich their lives.

The Schizophrenia Society of Alberta says, “Psychosis is treatable and recovery is expected.” Your friend or loved one recovering from psychosis needs your support. Treat them like anyone recovering from illness — tenderly and with respect.

Photo by Mental Health America (MHA)

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Corine Demas is a queer and disabled artist living and working in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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