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Our purpose with this manual is to provide useful information about severe mental illness, its treatment, its impact on families, and ways to cope. The information included is not exhaustive, and we encourage readers to use the many other resources available to them through advocacy organizations, libraries, and other sources. We chose to concentrate on two categories of disorders-mood disorders and psychotic disorders-because they comprise the most severe mental illnesses. Mood disorders include major depression and bipolar disorder (sometimes called manic depression); psychotic disorders include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. (If your relative has another diagnosis, you may still benefit from the information in this manual.) These disorders are often classified as “severe and persistent mental illness,” although the severity of a particular disorder may vary considerably from person to person. In most cases, they tend to be chronic and episodic. A chronic disorder has no cure, and is expected to be long lasting, even for the whole of a person’s life. An episodic disorder is one that has periods of illness alternating with periods of relative mental wellbeing.

When a person with a mental disorder sees a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist must rely on the person’s description of their problems and symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. Unlike other medical disorders, there are currently no blood or other laboratory tests that will detect these disorders. Families can provide useful information to physicians and other mental health professionals to help them make a diagnosis, and can also provide support that may improve their relative’s prognosis.

Mental illness is often misunderstood. We have provided this manual because we believe that gaining an understanding of mental illness, its treatment, and its effect on the family can help family members provide the best support possible to their relatives. Information can also help ease the burden that families often feel. We hope you find this information helpful.

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