How to Help Those With SMI During The Cold Winter Months

A Serious Mental Illness is designated as “serious” because it impacts a person’s ability to function and care for themselves. This is especially true during the cold winter months. And it’s important for caregivers to pay special attention to their loved ones with SMI during this season.

Whether it’s schizophrenia, severe depression, or mania, an SMI isn’t necessarily just about the diagnosis. It’s about the severity of the symptoms. People with SMI have a brain disease that affects their awareness of the danger posed by the cold. Sometimes, it can even decrease their body’s ability to regulate their temperature, which increases their risk for hypothermia.

People with SMI also have a decreased awareness of physical symptoms and/or a decreased ability to report them accurately. This makes them more susceptible to developing serious medical complications from simple cold and flu viruses that thrive during these frigid winter months. These simple viruses may seem like a small deal, but in reality, when symptoms are ignored or not reported accurately, or when self-care measures are not taken, they can develop serious and even life-threatening complications, especially for those with SMI.

If you’re a caregiver of someone with SMI, or even if you’re not, there are a few important things we can all do to make sure those with SMI get through these winter months as healthfully as possible:

  • Provide extra personal contact: If you are a caregiver, plan to spend more regular time with your loved one during this season. That extra time together allows you to be proactive about noticing symptoms and ensuring they get to the doctor when necessary. Make sure to listen for coughing, congestion, or wheezing, and pay special attention when these symptoms don’t seem to be getting better.
  • Help organize the closet change-over: Offer to help your loved one organize their closet at the beginning of the season, so that you can directly ensure they have cold-weather clothes. Take inventory of what they have and make a list of things they might need (heavy coat, hat, gloves, scarves, etc).
  • If you see something, say something: Even if you don’t know anyone personally with SMI, that doesn’t mean you won’t come into contact with them. If you see a person who does not have adequate shelter or clothing during these cold months, call 911 and ask for a wellness check. There are crisis teams who specialize in supporting people with SMI.
  • Donate to local organizations: Here in the DC area, we have organizations specifically focused on working with those who have SMI. Bethesda Cares is one of those organizations doing incredible work in our community, and we encourage any support you can give to them. At Help in the Home, we’re currently doing a drive to provide healthy snack bags, and will be taking donations through the end of February! Sign up for our newsletter for more details and the latest happenings at Help in the Home.

Whether you’re a direct caregiver of someone with SMI, or simply a concerned community member, there are ways we can all work to make winter safer for those struggling with Severe Mental Illness. These months can be uncomfortable and unenjoyable for all of us — but they can be truly dangerous for those with SMI. It’s up to all of us to help.

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