taking care of yourself

“Caring for yourself means respecting and honouring your own life. If you are a caregiver it goes without saying that you have a respect for life...just be sure to include your own.” – Sheila Morrison

Supporting a family member living with mental illness brings on challenges and stresses for the family. In order to be of help to the person you love, you need to first take care of yourself – as difficult as that may seem at times. You may wonder: When would I do that?

The answer is not so much when, but how. Learning to balance ‘me time,’ family time, friend time and time for your family member living with mental illness is key to keeping yourself healthy. When we don’t take care of our own needs, we’re more likely to become irritable, short-tempered, judgmental, resentful – all of which can have a negative impact on you and your family.

Living a healthy life also means balancing physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being. The demands of supporting a family member living with mental illness can negatively affect your health and well- being. More time spent caring for your family member means less time for leisure and social activities. This can result in lost friendships and family conflict.

“Spirituality is defined broadly – as those things that lift your spirits – nature, art, music, worship, and writing – as only a few examples.” – Canadian Collaborative Mental Health Initiative.

You may want to think, and take time to write down a few notes, about what being healthy means to you physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. This will help you to decide if there are things you would like to do differently for yourself. Small changes can have a big impact.

Here are some questions and thoughts for you to consider:

Who could take over the caregiving for an hour, a day, a weekend or a week?

Who can help you on a regular basis or on a very occasional basis? It may be a spouse, sibling, an adult child, a friend or a hired professional. Make a list; it should include more than one person. If this is difficult, talk to your family member’s health care professional(s) about your need for a circle of support.

Establishing a circle of support is necessary to staying well. Mental illness is not something that anyone should have to deal with by themselves. Find supportive friends, other family members, co-workers, anyone you feel comfortable talking with. You may also find it helpful to talk with others who are supporting their family members living with mental illness. More information on peer support is included in “Getting Help.”

As difficult as it may be, ask for help when you need it. Many people are eager to help but not sure what they can do. Help from others may allow you to free up time for yourself. Although it is easier said than done, taking time for yourself is very important. Even a 15 minute break can help you feel refreshed and energized.

What would I do if I had the gift of an hour, a day or a weekend?

Set some goals for yourself. Your goal could be to browse in a bookstore, spend a night at a bed & breakfast, take a walk, go to church, attend a concert, visit a friend, take in an exercise class. It may even be to escape to a quiet part of your home while someone else takes your family member for a walk. Make a list of small and big things you would love to do – then figure out how to make them happen, one at a time.

What did I used to do for fun?

Is it something you would like to do again, even on a smaller scale? If you used to play softball, go watch a game. Did you play a musical instrument? Paint? Draw? Write? Do yoga? Do karate? Think about what physical or creative activities appeal to you. What could you do, perhaps on a smaller scale, that you used to do and miss or always wanted to try?

“I never painted in my life but I was amazed at what I produced.”

Am I physically active?

For some people physical activity is part of their fun. For others, it’s more challenging. There are ways to start small and to work physical activity into your day. Schedule something for every day. It could be a walk, a few more flights of stairs, lifting weights or beginner yoga. If you don’t have the time or money to join a gym or regular exercise program, schedule time to exercise at home with videos or DVDs from your local library.

Who can I talk with about the difficulties in my life?

Support for you is healing. Do you have a friend or family member you can talk with? If not, you may find a support group helpful. If going to a support group would be hard for you, talk to your family doctor or spiritual leader. Attending public lectures and information sessions on mental health can also lead you to people who will talk comfortably about how to live with illness in the family. Getting to know other people who have a mental illness and who are living in the community can be very reassuring. It can also help you overcome any stigma you may be experiencing yourself.

Knowledge and support for you.

There are support groups for caregivers in many communities. Some welcome caregivers and their family member living with mental illness, while others are specifically for caregivers. Either way, support groups are often warm and welcoming environments that help families and their family member living with mental illness to see they are not alone. Support groups offer the power of knowledge that comes from a wealth of shared experience.

Do I have any volunteer activities unrelated to mental health?

Volunteer work doesn’t always have to be demanding or regular. Working at a particular event for a few hours can be fun and divert your attention from your worries.

How is my mood most days?

If you find yourself often feeling grouchy or short-tempered then perhaps something needs to change. Are you constantly trying to provide solutions, to fix things, to make suggestions for others? Part of supporting your family member living with mental illness in his recovery is allowing him to make decisions, choices and mistakes. Try listening more. Say less – a lot less. Repeat back in your own words what you think you hear the other person saying and then wait. You may find they are more likely to answer their own question, lessening your responsibility and empowering the other person.

Am I having repetitive thoughts, especially negative or fearful ones?

An overwhelming amount of fear and stress may be a part of your life as you support your family member living with mental illness. As a result, you may have recurring, repetitive You and Your Family 79 thoughts that can affect you day or night. A health professional can help you resolve these thoughts. It is first important to recognize that they happen, and then to ask for help. Sometimes just keeping a journal can help (first thing in the morning is a great time for this). Learning about your thoughts can lead you to begin setting new goals for yourself that will make you feel healthier and stronger.

Am I feeling sad and stuck most of the time?

You may want to visit your family doctor, clinic or community health nurse for a check up. Your body and mind may be reacting to stress. Everyone reacts in different ways.

Am I continually exhausted?

If you have done all you can to restore balance in your life and you are still tired, you may need a nutrition checkup. If your annual physical check up is fine, your doctor or a naturopathic doctor can tell you whether or not you should be taking supplements to boost your energy. Healthy food and good supplements can make a huge difference in your energy levels.

Are mealtimes a challenge for me?

If you are not getting a balance of all food groups your health will suffer.A whole wheat cracker, low fat cheese, and an apple is a better snack than buttered toast and tea. Having handy a list of nutritious easy-to-make meals can help with planning. Talk to your nutritionist or dietician to get ideas that will save you time and worry while providing good fuel for your body. Your whole family will benefit. You will also be setting a good example for your family member living with mental illness who may have to learn to cook and eat well on a low budget. Learn how to cut the bad fats, increase the good fats, reduce sugar, increase whole grains and fibers and introduce more fruits and vegetables. Always encourage your family member to take part in small ways even if he says no. It is important to offer small, repetitive options and challenges.

“Eating well is a challenge when my days are full. This week I am making one small change – an apple or orange every day.”

Do I laugh a lot?

Laughter reduces stress and is healing. It may be that you have not laughed for a long time. Did you know that there are laughing clubs? Think about what makes you laugh and seek it out. Funny movies and books, friends who are funny, jokes – anything you can think of to bring laughter into your home.

What do I feel most challenged by?

Knowledge is powerful. If you are facing big challenges related to your family member or anything else in your life, find out who you can talk to, who can help, who has the knowledge you need. This will reduce stress and help you stay healthy. For example, if your family member has a criminal charge laid against her, talk to people who have been through the legal system. Learn from them what you will be facing, what questions to ask, what steps to take. Easing your mind will make it easier for you to help your family member as well.

In the chapter “Supporting Recovery” we provide information on how families can support their family member living with mental illness on their recovery journey. We also noted that it is important that families recognize that they may have to take a recovery journey of their own – and make plans for it – just like their family member is doing. You may want to refer back to that chapter to find helpful tips and information for you.

The role of healthy eating, exercise and sleep

There’s a reason why we’ve all heard that healthy eating, exercise and sleep are essential to our health and well-being. It’s because it’s true!

Canada’s Guide to Healthy Eating and Physical Activity recommends:

Healthy eating

Physical activity

You can build your physical activity through the day in periods of 10 minutes or more each.


Sleep is very important. It allows your body to restore itself and prepare for the next day. When you don’t get enough sleep, you might be edgy, less able to deal with stressful situations and more prone to illness. The Canadian Health Network recommends that we: