Many people mentioned the importance of friends, family and partners for their well-being, though not all had supportive friends or family they could rely on. Supportive people could help them through hard times, including when they were ill. Other people could also support their recovery. This section describes how friends, family and partners supported them as adults - giving emotional support, financial help, a place to stay, and even help with personal care when they were unwell. A few people could stay with their family and so didn’t have to be admitted to hospital. However, several people had an unsupportive family, and some had experienced highly traumatic events within their family, including sexual or physical abuse by a close relative (see ‘View about causes and traumatic experiences’ and ‘Childhood and life before diagnosis’).
Giving and receiving support
Overall people’s relationships with family members were complex, yet often these relationships helped. For example, family members could speak on their behalf or reassure them when necessary. At other times people’s close relatives were the first people to notice that something wasn’t ‘quite right’. Tom said that his mum had thought he had an early stage of schizophrenia and suggested he should go to a day centre to get the care he needed. A mother we spoke to paid for her son’s flat for six months so he had a familiar place to return to after coming out of hospital.
Annie is a student, single and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
I just think kind of, I think they’ve not given up on me. I think that’s the main thing. Is that when I sort of, you know, I’d had 18 months off, they then didn’t say tough shit, you’ve missed your A levels. You know, then when I sort of actually had gap years at university and time out, they then didn’t say, “Tough shit. We’re not going to help you finish.” You know, they sort of helped me practically, they’ve helped me financially, they’ve helped me, kind of, I mean emotionally they’ve helped me. I mean I speak to Mum every day, mostly in the mornings, because I think partly because of my medication I’m not great in the mornings. So, you know, she does phone every day, and I guess if I was, well I know if I was like 100% well she wouldn’t, because she doesn’t phone my siblings every day and they’re similar age to me, whereas she does to me, and sees that I’m okay and stuff. So yes. I guess just not giving up on me.
And I guess still knowing that kind of when I was like away with fairies still kind of holding onto that kind of sense of me, the sense of [name], and that I am fundamentally a nice person and you know, that’s what my Mum and Dad have always sort of hung onto. They’ve always said, you know, even at my worst, and when I got absolutely talking shite that, you know, and they used to be very like that with staff, they used to be, she’s a lovely girl [laughs]. Yes. I don’t think they’ve kind of forgotten who I was even at my absolut… which must have been bloody difficult really what happened at 17, 18, especially for Dad. Yes. So, yes. They didn’t just, yes holding on to who I am really. And giving me the opportunities, yes, not kind of saying right, not like, saying you’ve messed up, tough.
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Pete works as a trainer and advocate. He is 48, White British, and lives with his partner in Sheffield. Pete has three children
Eventually me appendix burst and I was rushed to hospital in the early hours of the morning and I was in A&E in the waiting room and it was seven o’clock before I got seen, and fortunately me partner had come with me and they said to me, you know, “What’s been happening?.” And they did a blood test, apparently with your appendix your white blood count’s supposed to drop but mine didn’t, and they said, “Have you took any drugs?” Well I reeled off all these anti-psychotics [laughs] I think he knew it might be relevant, and he said, this is gospel truth, and this nurse came back and said , “Are you going to tell us the truth what you’re doing here? Don’t waste our time.” And me partner was really kicking up a fuss and eventually this surgeon come and he did a rebound test, and it nearly put me through the roof and he says, “This guy’s got appendicitis.” I, it was ten o’clock in the morning I’d been there since three in the morning when I got admitted to the ward, I was placed on morphine, ten o’clock at night the same surgeon come back and said , “And we’re really busy in theatre we’ll probably just drain your stomach and send you home.” Then me partner said, “You can’t you’re going to kill him.” And I was sent for an ultrasound then and me appendix had burst and there was an abscess on it. But it was three o’clock in the morning before they actually operated, so I’d been there twenty-four hours, and as luck would have it I knew one of the theatre technicians, and he came to see me partner afterwards and he says, “He was an hour from death.” He says, he, he said, “It had all gone to peritonitis through his body.” He says, “We opened up his stomach and we had to leave it for ten minutes because of the smell of the poison.” And he says, “We washed his stomach out three times before we actually started work on it.” And I’d been out of hospital a week and the peritonitis came back, I got straight back in, and it’s just been an accumulation of event, it’s, it’s never been right from that point.
People told us that their carers could go to extraordinary lengths to help. Tim's mother looked after him for over 30 years until her death. Two carers we spoke to talked about fighting to get things done, like access to services such as talking therapies, and to get the right physical care on a psychiatric ward.
People didn’t just need caring for. Some also had caring responsibilities. For example, people cared for children, elderly relatives and partners. Colin now helps to look after his elderly father, as well as his sister who has bipolar affective disorder.
Rachel does voluntary work, is in a relationship, and has no children. Ethnic background' White British.
I mean there are times, I’ll be honest when I think, oh God, you know, I can’t cope with this, but I wouldn’t be without him. You know, I think any relationship, either talking to friends or whatever, you know, any relationship has its ups and downs. It’s, you know... We have that kind of extra dynamic and we, I think, in a funny way, having the extremes of experiences that I have had has made me a fuller person. If I have friends who are in trouble emotionally, if they’re going through a really hard time, I’m there for them. I can understand, you know, they can talk to me, and that is a gift. You know, that is a gift. And, without being, you know, oh I can solve anybody’s problems. No. But the friends that I do have I have such a deep relationship with them that we can talk about anything. I mean absolutely anything. And we support each other which is vitally important, and I think so many people don’t have that, you know.
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Rachel does voluntary work, is single and has one son who is 7. Ethnic Background' White British.
One of the nicest techniques my psychologist taught me was the compassionate friend. Have you heard of that?
Yes. But say a bit about it?
Yes, I will do, it’s lovely. Because I’d go in and I’d feel awful and I’d feel very guilty about not looking after my son properly and I would have been down, and I wouldn’t have had much energy so I would have confessed that I hadn’t taken him out enough or done enough with him and things like that. And my psychologist would say, “What would a compassionate friend say?” And I would always come up with the same answer and that was quite strange actually. I would say, “I’m doing the best I can at the time.” And it would take the guilt away. It was just giving me permission to do what I do but not feel bad about it, and that was a really good technique and it’s one that I keep now, you know, you’re doing the best you can at the time, you know, and that is, has been really valuable for me. So I’m glad that I’m glad that he taught me that technique. Because it sort of saves you from the upset. And guilt’s quite a big thing when you’ve got a kid I think.
Some people felt that having their family or partner care for them didn’t particularly help. For example, being cared for could bring back painful memories of childhood such as when a parent who had previously been uncaring or even abusive. Caring could also confuse the roles people had. When Janey’s husband stopped being involved in her psychiatric care, she felt relieved that he was her ‘husband’ and not involved in her medical care.
Nada does voluntary work, is single and has no children. Ethnic background' British Indian
I still wasn’t handling my parents coming to see me at all, because it just made me feel worse, just made me feel like I was just how much I was distressing them you know in a way and I still didn’t know how to deal with them at all. So I still, I put up a bit of a wall, I tried to tell them like... I kind of felt that every time I’d start to feel a bit better they’d come and it would just set me straight back, you know, so any kind of progress I was making would just be completely like, just vanish. and so I tried to write to them to sort of say, you know I need to get better; I can’t do this with having contact with you I’ve got to do this on my own. My dad kind of took that, kind of, my mum totally didn’t was just angry you know, I don’t know felt rejected again.
Relationships when people were unwell
Many people worried about the strain that their mental distress could put on their family. They talked about having became suspicious of family or friends whom they had previously trusted. In particular, upsetting events like suicide attempts could be difficult to work through and affected their relationships.
Green Lettuce wants to be an entrepreneur, lives in the countryside, is single and has no children. Ethnic Background' White British.
At one point I was meant go to hospital for a day and overnight. I can’t remember the exact reason why, but I just didn’t like it at all, so I phoned my Dad up and came home. I didn’t even believe, like, because I was trying to get to see a doctor and they were just saying that you have to wait, and I was waiting like four or five hours it was ridiculous. I couldn’t see anyone. So I, and I couldn’t believe that they were lying, because at this time, obviously I thought everyone was, was against me, and I thought they, they were just doing it on purpose, made me worse. It did. That actually made it worse. So I really did thing they were just trying to make me worse. Even though they probably weren’t. It was just they were too busy.
And then when you said everybody was against you, did you also think about your family and friends?
No. Not really. When I went, I was in the hospital, I didn’t bel… I thought like when I phoned my Dad up to get him to pick me up from the hospital, that it wasn’t actually my Dad on the phone, even though I knew it was his voice, but I thought it had been someone from hospital winding me up. And I had to like ask him questions that only he would know, to prove that it was him. That’s like what I was thinking at the time. They were just winding me up.
A few people said they had been violent to their family when they were very unwell. Peter had woken up in a night terror and saw a nightmarish vision, upon which he tried to strangle his wife.
Social care assistant, married with adult children. Ethnic background/nationality' Black Afro-Caribbean (born in West Indies); in UK for 41 years
It was a period where she could have really said she had enough because, well she coped with trying to understand how it affected me because, basically I got her involved from the start and if she had any concerns about me she could have ring the GP, she could have gone to the psychiatrists and asked for advice. I said to the psychiatrist if my wife ever has any concerns about me, come out immediately and that was one of the clauses put in the care plan that if she called the GP they come almost immediately. There was an episode in the house where I went sort of berserk. I was hearing things coming to me telling me to take up knives and hurt myself basically. And I went to the kitchen drawer and I took out all the knives and threw them in the hallway in front of the main front door. And my wife was upstairs, I think she was, I can’t remember, the story is going to sound a bit mixed up but I’m trying to think straight to get pieces of the story together. It’s in my book properly but I’m trying to picture it, I can’t remember how it actually sequence of events goes together. But she got terrified, I had a mirror, a long full length mirror, I saw my image in it and it sort of looked distorted. I took the mirror to take it downstairs, but my wife was there and she thought I was throwing the mirror at her so she, pregnant as she was, scarpered downstairs. The doctors was only 100 yards away at the surgery so she ran out the door to the doctors’ surgery, mirror smashed to pieces at the bottom of the stairs, the knives remained scattered in the passage, it was utterly horrendous for her, I have the feeling of empathy for her now. The doctor, my family, as well, and the psychiatrist came, a lady psychiatrist, and wouldn’t let them in. They talked to me through the letterbox and persuaded me to let them come in and I was sectioned. I was sectioned the first time it happened I was living at home.
Only very few people talked about being violent towards their family when they were unwell, and this was nearly always when they were drunk. Most people had felt very upset by violent thoughts or voices encouraging violence, saying they would never act on them.
Naveed is a volunteer, and is married with two children. Ethnic background' British Pakistani.
They say so many bad things, but I personally feel the worst thing they ever said to me was, I woke up one morning and I wasn’t feeling very well, and I think my daughter must have been about four or five, three or four years old then. And they said, “Get that pillow and smother her.”
And what I did, I got out of bed. Because she was lying in her cot ain’t it. I got out of bed. I didn’t get dressed. I was wearing my nightclothes, grabbed some money and cigarettes, I went to a shop, bought some cigarettes, bought some razor blades and I was going to do myself in on that particular day, because I… why did those voices tell me to do, you know, that to my daughter and what if I had done it, you know. So I’d rather die than do that to my daughter. You know, so …
I think some people might say, “Oh how come that was the worst thing like. Because they told you to do something to your daughter. They way they’ve criticised you, and said things about you, that’s a lot worse.” But for me, personally, I don’t care about the criticism they, they give me and the way they criticise me, and made my life hell sometimes, but that was the worst thing when they asked me to actually smother my daughter.
Many people talked about the importance of family and friends to their well-being and recovery. People said that being with friends who drank too much or took too many drugs did not help. Friendships were also sometimes hard work, but the ‘right’ friendships could help with everyday life, and even help recovery. For example, Nada talked about her flatmates at university cooking for her when she first became unwell. They also recognised the signs of becoming distressed another time so that they could contact her family for help. Another spoke about friends who would still ring them, even when they couldn’t go out.
Robert used to be a labourer, is living with his partner and had one child Ethnic background' White English
Robert' What more can I say. I’m the luckiest person in the world. Oh yes. Without [name of partner] I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t have survived it. I probably wouldn’t, I probably wouldn’t have been able to like, to [name of partner] I could turn round and say, “Well look. Did you hear that? Did you hear this like?” You know, and [name of partner] being of sound mind about me [laughs]. You know, so helpful. You know, I mean to say we were with each other 24 hours a day weren’t we. Have been for years like. So she’s always been there for me, like you know. Especially in [name of city], like I was having such a tough time, and yes. I don’t know. Yes. I don’t think I’d be around now if it was for [name of partner], to be truthful like because I can’t imagine going through that on my own. Oh that wouldn’t have been easy would it? I can’t imagine with all the voices I was hearing. It’s not like, how do I put it, it’s not like you hear it on the TV, there was someone the other day, about someone killing someone, saying, “Oh yes, I heard voices. I heard voices.” It’s nothing like that. With me it’s just I suppose its people persecuting me, if you see what I mean, calling me names, slagging me off, stuff like that. And that makes it difficult in itself. I’m lucky that I’ve always had [name of partner] to turn round and say look is that right, is it happening.
Partner' It’s difficult when we go out as well.
Robert' Yes, yes.
Partner' Sometimes when we go out, he thinks he hears something and he’s like, well if he said that, I’m going to him and it’s like no don’t, because he might not have even said it, he might have been talking to someone else. So truthfully it’s like in a way he’s lucky because when we go shopping I’m there to stop him, in case he does do something stupid, because I just know where it’s going to get him.
Many people had lost friends since becoming unwell, and some even preferred to have friends they had met in psychiatric services to other friends, as fellow patients knew more about their difficulties.
Dolly is studying film, is single with no children and involved with the service user movement. Dolly heard voices at the age of 14 and in her early 20s was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Now she lives by the sea and doesn't take psychiatric medication. Ethnic background' White Mixed Asian.
I kind of got, the only kind of really support I have to say I got was from the other patients. So you know, there was many a time I was crying on the ward and no nurse came to comfort me. It was you know, for the patient. And there was one lady, I’ll never forget this, she went, she saw that I was crying, she went out, to the kind of drinks machine and she bought me back a can of Cola to cheer me up. And I thought that was just so sweet, and when you’re feel very like, vulnerable and very alone, and attacks, that kind of little bit of humanness and a little bit of compassion makes all the difference.
Others preferred more of a mix of friends, or people with whom they could talk about things like music, photography or football - in other words, topics not just to do with mental health.
Despite all the support outlined here, people also talked about bad reactions from friends, family and others when people realised that they had a psychiatric illness. For more on these reactions see ‘Reactions of others and stigma’.
Last reviewed April 2014.
Last updated April 2014.