August 2, 1999
MEDIA CONTACT: Barb Chamberlain, 509/358-7527,
NEWS CONTACT: Dennis G. Dyck, 509/299-4501, 509/358-7618,
        SPOKANE, Wash. -- Family members assisting in the care of someone with schizophrenia are far more susceptible to infectious illnesses such as the common cold or the flu if their schizophrenic family members are highly symptomatic. However, family members are less likely to become ill if they report faith in a deity or express satisfaction with their social support system.
        These new findings come from an ongoing five-year study funded by the National Institute for Mental Health and conducted by investigators from Washington State University at Spokane and the University of Washington. The results appear in the current issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.
        It is the first research ever to examine the physical impact of caring for someone with schizophrenia, which is the most severe form of mental illness in the nation, affecting some 2.5 million people.
        Almost half of persons with chronic psychiatric disabilities maintain regular family contact, and many live with their families.
        Researchers studied predictors of stress and physical health problems in a sample of family caregivers for schizophrenic people. The results demonstrated a strong link between the presence of infectious illness in the family caregivers and the level of psychiatric symptoms in the family member with mental illness. Almost 80 percent of caregivers in the highest group experienced an infectious illness in a six-month interval.
        Family caregivers whose mentally ill family member was rated as "moderately" symptomatic were almost four times as likely to report infectious illness symptoms during the prior six-month period as were family caregivers whose mentally ill family members were rated as not having symptoms. Families who were satisfied with their social support system and those whose coping strategies involved faith in a deity were less likely to report infectious illness symptoms.
        "The present results show how closely linked the physical health status of families is to the mental health status of their mentally ill family members," says researcher Dennis Dyck, a psychologist and director of The Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research & Training (WIMIRT) at Washington State University at Spokane.
        "If we are interested in determining the true cost of treating schizophrenia in the community, we need to appreciate the direct and indirect costs incurred by their families. A substantial portion of the latter costs may be related to health problems linked to the burden of caregiving," says Dyck.
        In addition to Dyck, the research team includes biostatistician Robert Short from WSU Spokane and Peter Vitaliano from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. Vitaliano has studied the health impacts of dementia caregiving for many years.
The researchers caution that further research is necessary due to the limitations of this study, including the small sample size (70 families) and the nature of the sample. For example, all participants were people who had elected to participate in an intervention study, and participants did not well represent minority populations or male caregivers.
        But Dyck notes, "Family caregivers should be included in treatment decision-making, because clearly they pay a very real and personal price for their involvement in care. This has implications both for clinical practice and for policy formation."

Note to editors and reporters: A three-page fact sheet on schizophrenia and family caregivers is available on request.


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