"You could see it sinking and you didn't know what to do because you didn't know what was going on either"

Families of sufferers recount "the hell" of managing outbreaks with home confinement and the virtuality of consultations

3 min
Families have had trouble coping with relapses and debut of disorders during the pandemic

Barcelona"You saw it sinking and you didn't know what to do because you didn't know what was happening". The phrase is from Irene Romero, who has a teenage daughter with bipolar disorder diagnosed three years ago and who illustrates the extent to which the families of people with a mental illness have had to face a double crisis during this harsh pandemic. "Everything is so hard that you can't even get depressed because you're afraid it's going to make it worse," she says, adding that she is as aware as ever that the family also needs help to move forward.

Accompanying alone is a titanic and exhausting task and the social network, the contact with people who are in similar situations, makes the pain, doubts and anxiety fit better. Member families have called on the Afammca (Association of Family Members of the Mentally Ill of Catalonia) these months seeking advice on what to do in a relapse, but also people like Romero who, desperately, were trying to find an explanation about “what happens to sick children, parents or siblings ”, affirms Albert Algarrada, psychologist of the entity: "If they already have a basic concern, these families have had to add to their personal suffering the effects of the pandemic on sick people. The almost exclusive dedication of the health system to covid and the virtualization of consultations have been a major obstacle for these families, especially for those who encountered a mental disorder for the first time, because they did not know how to decipher the symptoms or where to go for guidance, explains the psychologist.

Hell at home

At Romero's house, her daughter's outbreak was "hell" because "there was no way to stop her or make her see reason. Finally, she ended up in the emergency room and with medication that managed to calm her down. The homes have been like "prisons" for patients and family members. The coexistence has been difficult and has been rarefied in many homes because "not all patients are docile", nor do they understand that they have to wait to be attended by doctors, says Montserrat Boix, President of the Afatrac (Association of Relatives of People Affected by Conduct Disorders), which she created five years ago to respond to cases like that of her son, who from the age of 13 struggled with addictions that triggered the disorder. The boy died in the street at the end of 2019 and at the time that the entity has been operating, other families have lost three children.

In cases of behavioral disorders, intrafamily coexistence is almost impossible because the sick become aggressive or steal to get money to buy drugs, an operation that during the pandemic has also become complicated. Many of the patients leave home and go to live on the streets or in slums, and it was “exasperating” for the families to know that they were out in the open while confinements were ordered and social services were closed. "Some have returned home and the fear [of contagion] has made them calm", says Boix, who explains that families open the door despite the fact that the boys have a restraining order in compliance with a previous complaint. "They are your children, what can you do?" he asks.

The entity, with 270 members and 300 families plus contacts, works to promote a change in the regulations to prevent the sick adults end up alone and thrown in the street. "They confuse them with criminals and drug addicts but they are mentally ill", says Boix, who calls for a legal formula for parents to be heard when the boy of legal age refuses treatment or admission to a center because "they are not aware of the disorder ". The incapacitation or recovery of an adult does not involve having the last word and, instead, can make the family end up in debt and with credits to pay the ends against their children for the crimes they may have committed.