Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence

  Social Support and Women Living with Serious Mental Illness


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Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence
56 The Promenade
Winnipeg, MB
R3B 3H9

The research and publication of this study were funded by the Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence (PWHCE). The PWHCE is financially supported by the Women's Health Contribution Program, Bureau of Women's Health and Gender Analysis, Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the PWHCE or the official policy of Health Canada.

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W. Chernomas & D. E. Clarke

Executive Summary

The people in a social support network can help a person find solutions to problems, validate an individual's identity, direct the individual to helpful information, and provide comfort when that is all that can be done. Connection to others contributes to a sense of well being and gives meaning to life. It is no wonder that social support has been identified as one of the determinants of health, i.e., a factor believed to contribute to our overall health. Schizophrenia is an illness that can cause disorganized thinking, hallucinations, and delusions. It can cause a person to feel depressed or flat and lack the motivation to act. As a serious mental illness, at different stages it can inhibit the ability to make meaningful connections with others. Over time, due to the social stigma associated with serious mental illness, developing and maintaining relationships can be difficult. A support system is vital for people living with schizophrenia yet at the same time the illness places relationships at risk.

This project explored the social support in the lives of women living with schizophrenia. It was designed to build on an initial study, which examined the informational, and support needs as perceived by this population. In the initial study, women indicated there were a limited number of people in their lives. This present study focused on exploring with women their formal and informal sources of support, the kind of support people in their lives provided, and the kind of support women felt was lacking. Women were encouraged to talk about support in the context of their everyday lives, responsibilities, and sense of self, in light of having a serious mental illness.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with fourteen women living in the community who self-identified as being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Most of these women were unemployed, lived in poverty, and relied on social assistance. Some lived with physical health problems as well. Most women had few responsibilities or activities to occupy their days, outside of limited social contacts and some structured activities. They relied on public transportation to get to appointments or other activities. The telephone was an important medium to connect them with members of their support system, especially in times of crisis.

Family members and mental health care providers were often identified as the most supportive people in their lives. Female friends with serious mental illness provided a meaningful source of connection to these women; however, the nature of the support was largely affective. Women conveyed a sense of reciprocity as they talked about their relationships and place within the community.

Summary Of Recommendations:

  1. An important source of support for women with serious mental illness is other women who have serious mental illnesses. Education and support is needed for women with serious mental illness who support each other.
  2. Families provide tangible, informational, appraisal, and emotional support over time, and at a distance. Education and support is needed for family members so they can be supportive.
  3. Women with serious mental illness could benefit from access to a health care worker who is knowledgeable about available resources, and can assist women in making choices about suitable resources in the community.
  4. Further development of intersectoral partnerships among agencies serving this population is needed.
  5. Access to female health care providers to discuss sensitive health care issues is recommended.
  6. Support for telephone service as part of social assistance is recommended, given the importance of the telephone in accessing members of the support system.
  7. Support for a bus pass as part of social assistance is recommended, given the need to rely on public transportation to access support systems outside the home.
  8. Support for the development of vocational training programs would be beneficial for women with serious mental illness.
The findings, and the programming and policy implications that emerge, reinforce those reported elsewhere. A primary health care model, which is gender-sensitive and considers illness within the context of the individual's life, is best suited to meet the numerous needs of women living with serious mental illness.

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