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Seminar Offers Help on Avoiding Caregiver Burnout

By Sophia Glezos Voit

When a person develops a mental illness, family members and others have the power to influence the recovery process favorably or otherwise, said clinical psychologist and NIMH researcher Robert Heinssen at a recent seminar for NIH staff. "Studies show that the power for good is rooted in taking care of yourself."

While getting enough exercise, sleep and nourishing food is a good idea if you want to maintain health, there's more to self-care when a loved one is sick.

"Most people feel selfish meeting their own needs," Heinssen said, speaking on coping with mental illness in the family at a recent session of the Seminar Café, held monthly at the Neuroscience Center on Executive Blvd.

"So, they keep doing and doing, neglecting their own needs, until eventually they burn out. No one benefits, especially not the patient. But 'selfishness' and 'healthy self-interest' are not the same."

Although Heinssen's experience is in treating people with severe mental illness, he said studies show that the importance of meeting one's own needs also applies to loved ones of people suffering from other types of medical conditions.

Dealing with illness and its different stages — whether temporary or long-term, whether the brain is affected or another organ — brings on challenges and pulls on many different emotions, both for the individual and the family members; it's important to know how best to regulate these feelings.

"Significant others can either bolster a person's ability to tolerate the stress of an illness or can contribute to the worsening of symptoms," Heinssen said. "When we don't take care of our own needs, we're more likely to become irritable, short-tempered, judgmental, resentful — which can have a negative impact on the person who's struggling to get better."

Studies show that supportive, flexible and enduring relationships can "facilitate a person's stability and recovery," he said, whereas interactions characterized by "criticism, over-control or rigid expectations can accelerate the process of active symptoms."

Although each illness has its own course, said Heinssen, in many cases long-term outcome can be favorably altered. Even though family support is only one factor in medical outcome, taking self-care seriously can help family members "begin to modify the trajectory of a loved one's condition." In no way, he cautioned, does this mean that family members cause illness or that they're to blame if their loved one doesn't get well. "But since relationships are interactive, it makes sense to play as positive a role as you can."

Heinssen said self-care is a three-pronged tool in the service of healing: self-education about the illness in question; establishment of one's own social support system; and taking the steps to preserve one's mental health.

Self-education means learning about the disorder's symptoms, the course of the illness, treatment options, and effective approaches to navigating the health care system.

"Because the mental health care system, in particular, is fraught with complexities such as confidentiality issues and limits on health-insurance coverage, it is especially important to learn how to use it to your advantage," Heinssen said.

The next step, establishing your own support system, can include having close friends and family ties but it also involves attending support groups with other people who are dealing with similar family issues.

Just as important as support groups, he added, is the need for family members to develop and maintain interests that are separate from their relationship with the individual who is recovering.

"It means taking positive steps to ensure your own mental health," Heinssen said. "Getting out and having a good time, laughing and having fun, setting limits for yourself, meeting your recreational needs, all of it helps to preserve your relationship for the long haul."

As for preserving one's mental health, there are many legs to this third self-care step. One of them may include having your own therapist, someone in whom you can confide about your own struggles and from whom you can learn new coping strategies.

The Seminar Café's Feb. 26 seminar, presented by Dr. Matthew Rudorfer, chief of the NIMH Somatic Treatments Program, will address what science has discovered about the mental health effects of exercise. During Brain Awareness Week, on Mar. 12, Drs. Barbara Radziszewska and Bernard Ravina of NINDS will focus on research findings about how to prevent stroke or minimize damage if it occurs.

All seminars, presented in layman's language, are held from 2-3 p.m. in the café area of the Neuroscience Center cafeteria, located at 6001 Executive Blvd., in Rockville. To register or to request any reasonable accommodation, call 443-4533 or write to

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