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Office of Mental Health

Dealing with Cognitive Dysfunction
Associated with psychiatric disabilities

A handbook for families and friends
of individuals with psychiatric disorders

Written by:
Alice Medalia, Ph.D.and Nadine Revheim, Ph.D.

Sponsored by:
The New York State Office of Mental Health Family Liaison Bureau
Rami P. Kaminski, M.D., Commissioner's Liaison to Families
Joan F. Shanebrook, ACSW, Deputy Director

Handbook design: Walter Boppert, OMH Bureau of Public Information

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to wake up one morning and be unable to think clearly, concentrate and remember new information. You go to work eager to be productive but are unable to concentrate and after a while, your boss gets upset with you for not completing assignments and forgetting things.

People seem to be speaking rapidly and you become unclear about what they said or what they want. Your self-confidence begins to fade and your relationships with family and friends start to deteriorate.

You begin doubting your abilities and your perception of the world around you. You fear others and start to withdraw from social activities. As time goes on, you begin to lose hope that you will regain your abilities and that your future will be better.

These are some of the things that may happen when individuals experience cognitive problems associated with serious psychiatric disabilities.

At the Office of Mental Health, we know that individuals with psychiatric disabilities can and do recover. Part of recovery is the process of regaining control over one’s life, rebuilding self-confidence and a sense of hope for the future. Family and friends play a paramount role within this recovery process.

The Office of Mental Health recognizes the unique challenges families and friends experience as they work to help provide their loved ones with appropriate and effective mental health care.

This “Handbook for Families” is a direct result of the Office of Mental Health’s recognition that families and other advocates provide significant support for their relatives and friends who are dealing with psychiatric disorders.

I am sure that like me, you too will find “Dealing with Cognitive Dysfunction, A Handbook for Families and Friends of Individuals with Psychiatric Disorders” an innovative and effective tool in assisting individuals with psychiatric disorders as they work toward recovery.

James L. Stone, MSW, CSW
New York State Office of Mental Health


Every Project has a Beginning – this Handbook started a number of years ago with the vision of Rami Kaminski, MD, New York State Office of Mental Health, Liaison to Families. Dr. Kaminski understood that it was important for families and other advocates to learn more about cognitive problems associated with mental illness.

With the support of James Stone, the Commissioner of the Office of Mental Health and the dedication and professional skills of Joan Shanebrook, ACSW, Deputy Director in the Family Liaison Bureau at the Office of Mental Health this project moved forward. There are many individuals to thank for their contributions to this Handbook, but foremost we would like to mention those individuals with psychiatric disorders and their families and friends who have shared their experiences with us in developing this Handbook. Special thanks also needs to go to the dedicated and talented mental health professionals for helping cognitive remediation become mainstream practice.

Alice Medalia, Ph.D Nadine Revheim, Ph.D.

Director of Neuropsychology
Montefiore Medical Center K-2
111 East 210 Street
Bronx, New York 10467

Research Psychologist
Nathan Kline Institute
140 Old Orangeburg Road
Orangeburg, New York 10962

Cognitive dysfunction in mental illness

Mental illness affects many people, but what most do not realize is that it does not just cause emotional problems – it causes cognitive problems too. The person with mental illness may find it difficult to think clearly, pay attention and remember. For some, the cognitive problems are only evident during the episodes of illness. For others, the cognitive problems are more persistent. If mental illness is managed well, the person can lead a more productive life and have longer periods of stability. To better manage an illness it is important to understand the many ways it affects functioning. When people know what the cognitive symptoms of mental illness are, they can better manage the illness and function better.

What does the word Cognition mean?

Cognition refers to thinking skills, the intellectual skills that allow you to perceive, acquire, understand and respond to information. This includes the abilities to pay attention, remember, process information, solve problems, organize and reorganize information, communicate and act upon information. All these abilities work in a close, interdependent fashion to allow you to function in your environment.

Cognitive skills are different from academic skills. Academic skills include knowledge about different subjects like literature, math and history. Cognitive skills refer to the mental capabilities you need to learn academic subject matter, and more generally to function in daily life. Cognitive skills are the underlying skills that must be in place for you to think, read, understand, remember, plan and organize.

Some facts about cognition:

Let’s take an example. If you are given a doctor’s appointment, you need to pay attention to the secretary, understand what has been said or written, think about other appointments you have made so as to avoid a schedule conflict, remember to write down the appointment, and then remember to look at the calendar on the designated day. You also have to be able to plan how you will get to the appointment and then organize yourself to make sure you are there on time. You may even want to make notes about the things you will need to discuss at the appointment. So, to get to the doctor’s appointment you need many cognitive skills: attention, language comprehension, memory, organization and planning. It can be hard to get to the appointment if these skills are not working well. Even if you are emotionally ready and willing to have the appointment, if you do not remember it you will miss it.

Why do people with mental illness have cognitive dysfunction?

Families often ask what causes the cognitive problems. Research has shown us that it is the illnesses themselves that cause much of the cognitive dysfunction. For many years people thought that the cognitive problems were secondary to other symptoms, like psychosis, lack of motivation, or unstable mood – but now we know that is not the case. Cognitive dysfunction is a primary symptom of schizophrenia and some affective disorders. That is why the cognitive problems are evident even when other symptoms are controlled – even when people are not psychotic, or in an affective episode. Furthermore, research has shown that those parts of the brain that are used for specific cognitive skills, often do not function normally in people with schizophrenia and certain affective disorders. This indicates that mental illness affects the way the brain functions, and that is what causes the cognitive problems. There are many myths about mental illness and cognitive dysfunction. Some of the most common ones are listed in the sidebar below.

Myths about cognition

The ability to attend, remember and think clearly is ultimately the result of a complex interaction of factors. While it is true that mental illness often causes cognitive impairment, it is also true that other factors will affect thinking skills. Most people think best, pay attention and remember better when they are not emotionally stressed, and when they have had the opportunity to learn adaptive cognitive skills.

How does mental illness affect cognition:
What are the signs to look for?

There are different mental illnesses and they affect cognition differently. Furthermore, not every person is affected in the same way. Some people with schizophrenia have more cognitive problems than others. Some people with depression or bipolar disorder have problems in one aspect of cognitive functioning but not another. It is important to understand that a mental illness affects each person somewhat differently. By understanding all the different ways mental illnesses can affect cognition, it is easier to understand how the person you know is affected.

People who have schizophrenia often experience problems in the following aspects of cognition:

Truths about cognition

People who have affective disorders, like bipolar disorder and recurrent depressions, often experience problems in the following aspects of cognition:

All these cognitive problems may be evident during an affective episode, but when the mood stabilizes, the problem with attention often gets better. The difficulty with memory, motor and thinking skills may continue to be evident even during periods of mood stability. When hallucinations or delusions are a feature of the illness, it is more likely that cognitive problems will be experienced. The problems with thinking skills are most often seen when alcohol and drug abuse are also present.

Who is affected by cognitive dysfunction?

Most people with schizophrenia - at least 85% - will experience problems with cognition. These problems may be evident even before psychotic symptoms start, and they may lead to a decline in academic or work performance. One of the earliest cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia is poor attention, but difficulty with memory and visual motor speed may also be evident before the onset of psychotic symptoms.

How do these cognitive problems show up in daily life?

Cognitive impairment may be experienced in different ways. Let's look at how each of these cognitive problems may be manifested.


Some people report that they have difficulty paying attention when people talk and give directions. Others find it hard to concentrate on what they read, and find that they loose track of the important points, especially when reading longer passages. They may find it hard to focus on one thing when other things are happening. They may get distracted or conversely, become so involved in one thing that they fail to attend to something else that is happening. Multi-tasking, for example, answering a customer's question while operating the cash register, becomes difficult because they have to divide their attention.


The ability to remember and recall information, particularly verbal material, is often a problem. Directions may be forgotten, or the ability to recall what has been read or heard may be reduced.

Most people who are depressed or in an affective episode will have difficulty with attention, concentration and thinking clearly. Those people with persistent mood problems, and those who have psychotic symptoms are more likely to continue to experience cognitive problems between episodes.

Cognitive problems can affect people of all ages. There is evidence that cognitive problems are most pronounced in the early phases of schizophrenia and then for many people level off, not getting better or worse. Since schizophrenia usually starts in adolescence or young adulthood, that is the time when the most dramatic decline in cognition may be seen. However, since that is the time when psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations also start, the cognitive problems may be overlooked by a family until the psychotic symptoms stabilize. For children and adolescents, a drop in school performance may be the first sign that alerts families that something is wrong.

Cognitive problems are very common in older adults with depression. Sometimes it can be difficult to sort out whether the forgetfulness is due to depression, normal aging, or another condition like dementia. The mental health professionals will ask questions and do tests to answer that question. Many people experience memory lapses as they get older, but when someone is depressed the forgetfulness is more severe.

People with mental illness who abuse drugs and alcohol are very likely to experience cognitive problems. Drug and alcohol abuse alone can impair attention, memory and thinking skills. If substance abuse is combined with mental illness the cognitive problems can be even worse.

Most people do not have trouble remembering routines they have learned, but they may find that they do not hold onto new information as well as they used to.

The ability to process and respond to information

Family may notice that response times are slower or that it takes longer to register and understand information. Speech production can also seem slower and even though it may only be half a minute, that can seem like a long time to wait for a communication when you are trying to have a conversation with someone.

Thinking skills

Critical thinking, planning, organization and problem solving are often referred to by psychologists as the executive functions, because those are the skills that help you act upon information in an adaptive way. Take the example of cooking a meal.Even if you know how to cook each dish, to actually serve a dinner you have to plan ahead to have all the ingredients, organize and manage your time so each dish is finished at the same time. You also need to be able to adapt your plans if problems arise, like the oven does not work or an ingredient or type of pan is missing. People with mental illness may seem less able to think of alternate strategies for dealing with problems that arise, or they may have difficulty coming up with a plan, or find it hard to listen critically to new information and know what is important and what is not.

Cognitive impairment: The impact on daily functioning

When people have trouble paying attention, remembering and thinking clearly, it impacts on their ability to function in the community, at school, at work and in relationships.

Community: Impairments in memory and problem solving are associated with greater problems living independently. In fact, it has been shown that for people with schizophrenia, cognitive abilities are more linked to successful independent living and quality of life than clinical symptoms. It is easy to understand that the ability to solve problems and remember verbal information is critical for negotiating transportation, home management, shopping, finances, health and psychiatric rehabilitation.

School: The school years are formative years, when the mind is developing and one's knowledge base and critical thinking skills are broadening. Unfortunately, mental illness often starts before people have finished this educational process. The problems with attention, concentration and thinking can make it very difficult to keep up with school work, and even students who once excelled may become discouraged by the lost time, or their declining grades. When students fall behind in their academics, they may start to view themselves negatively, and prefer to quit rather than keep exposing themselves to more academic failure. They also lose the opportunity to consolidate good study and learning habits, or worse, a poor learning style may develop. People with mental illness who have dropped out of school are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs yet the cognitive problems can make it difficult to complete the necessary degrees.

Work: Research has demonstrated that people with mental illness who have difficulty with memory, problem solving, processing speed, and attention are more likely to be unemployed or have a lower occupational status. In many ways this is not surprising. Critical thinking has been identified as one of the most important skills that people need to compete in the modern workforce. Yet critical thinking/problem solving is often impaired in people with persistent mental illness. The problems that can arise at work when someone has difficulty paying attention, concentrating and remembering are also obvious. Most jobs are not just rote and repetitive, but require people to remember new information or deal with changing demands. This is difficult when cognition is not working well.

Relationships: One of the things that makes personal relationships rewarding is the give and take of support, caring and concern. People want others to really listen and pay attention to them. When someone with mental illness is not able to attend to or remember what their friend is saying, their friend may feel hurt or not listened to. At work, colleagues or bosses may think the person with mental illness does not care - or is lazy - when in fact it may be that they are not cognitively able to perform. The ability to pay attention, be focused and not get distracted is important for social functioning.

Medications and cognition: Do they help or hinder?

Families are often concerned that it is the medications that are causing the cognitive problems. For many years, psychosis and affective disorders were being treated with medications that could cause side effects, like movement disorders, attention and memory problems. More recently, newer drugs have come onto the market, and these medications seem to cause fewer side effects. Some drug companies even claim that the newer medications enhance cognitive functioning. It can be confusing for family members to figure out what medications provide the best treatment with the fewest side effects. Below are some guidelines to use when thinking about medications and cognitive side effects.

Getting medications to work for you

Finding the right medication, and the right dose of medication, may take some time. Medical doctors will be best able to help if you provide information about the response to the medication. This means giving information about both emotional and cognitive functioning. The following checklist provides a good guide to follow when looking at the impact of medications on cognitive functioning. It can be very helpful if family members fill this out since they may notice things that the ill person is not aware of. However, the person being prescribed the medications should also fill it out since their experience of the medications is very important.

When medications are being taken at the prescribed doses and times:

It can be difficult to tell if a cognitive problem is a part of the illness or a side effect of the medication. For example, some medications can cause memory problems, but both psychosis and depression also cause forgetfulness.

If cognitive problems are noticed, be sure to report them to the doctor right away so he/she can decide if it is a side effect of the medication. If side effects are a problem there are different things you and your doctor can do:

Never change medication on your own. Finding the right medication is a complicated decision that must be made with a doctor, based on his/her thorough assessment of your medical problem.

How can cognitive dysfunction be treated?

Cognitive dysfunction can be treated in three ways: (1) using remediation techniques, (2) compensatory strategies, or (3) adaptive approaches. Most experts agree that a comprehensive program of cognitive rehabilitation uses techniques from each approach. A mental health professional, such as a neuropsychologist, psychologist, or occupational therapist, usually makes the determination of how best to treat cognitive dysfunction. The professional would create a treatment plan that delineates the methods to be used to reach specific goals during cognitive rehabilitation. The approaches to be used (remediation vs. compensation vs. adaptation) would be determined by the individual's relative strengths and weaknesses. Each approach will be discussed below with some examples.

Cognitive Rehabilitation is the practice of training techniques that facilitate improvement in targeted cognitive areas; and focus on functional outcome.

Remediation techniques

Remediation techniques are designed by professionals for the purpose of treating cognitive dysfunction. Remediation techniques include specific drills and exercises, using computerized software, paper and pencil tasks and group activities. The goal of remediation is to change an individual's situation by improving the cognitive skill that is the target of the remediation task.

In order to begin cognitive remediation, some type of initial assessment of cognitive abilities is usually obtained. The assessment may include standardized testing; clinical interviews that focus on psychosocial history; educational and vocational background; and current functioning level. A treatment plan would then follow the evaluation so that priorities and goals can be mutually established. An individualized treatment plan that is based on personal interests and strengths, in addition to deficits that are to be the focus of the remediation program, is optimal. Most cognitive remediation specialists agree that in addition to engaging in cognitive tasks that are designed to target specific skill areas, such as problem-solving skills or attention training, an individualized treatment plan must include social, emotional, affective and functional components.

Remediation techniques are quite varied. Some emphasize the use of drill and practice to isolate what is impaired and correct it. Others rely on extensive testing both to identify the specific deficits for remediation and measure treatment effectiveness. Some focus on everyday problems and overall disability, not just specific cognitive impairments. Holistic approaches do not separate cognitive, psychiatric, functional and affective aspects of an individual's performance. Rather, a holistic approach integrates cognitive remediation with all aspects of an individual's goals for recovery.

One example of a holistic model for cognitive remediation is the Neuropsychological Educational Approach to Rehabilitation (NEAR). This model includes computer assisted learning and group treatment within the framework of a psychiatric rehabilitation setting. The goals of the NEAR Model include the following:

An individual engaged in cognitive remediation using the NEAR Model would be offered individualized computer-assisted learning sessions several times a week (e.g. lasting from 30 min. to 1 hour), supportive group counseling with other individuals that share experiences about cognitive difficulties and who are engaged in cognitive remediation treatment, and specific group activities that accommodate a range of cognitive functioning and relate to rehabilitation goals (e.g. selected work tasks). The goal of the therapist is to select various learning experiences for an individual, provide the necessary objects in the environment, judge readiness to move on to learning more advanced levels and to provide support, encouragement and reinforcement.

There are different types of approaches that are being used for cognitive remediation. Each one may emphasize different activities, intensity of the intervention, or therapeutic styles. However, it helps to remember that there are several markers of a good cognitive remediation program.

  1. They do not make promises or offer quick solutions. Most remediation is slow, time-intensive, and the outcome is related to the type of cognitive problem, prior levels of cognition, and multiple factors that may mitigate change (e. g. use of alcohol or drugs).
  2. They do not focus on the cognitive task alone. Most remediation is best-suited to a collaborative process in which a professional guides the individual, monitors progress and is involved in ongoing and dynamic assessment of cognitive changes.
  3. They focus on skills rather than the illness. Most remediation efforts need to take the bigger picture of how cognition relates to daily functioning into account. Good cognitive remediation understands that improved cognition on specific tasks must generalize into daily life. That is, a computerized graph indicating a steady slope of improvement on an attention task is not sufficient. However, being attentive during social discourse is a step forward in social relatedness.

Compensatory strategies

Compensation strategies rely on trade-offs. Compensation assumes that there are alternate methods to perform a task. In other words, compensation accounts for different approaches to accomplish the same goal. For example, if a person is going shopping and cannot remember the 5 items they were asked to purchase, you might say they have poor verbal memory. If that person was able to sort the 5 items into categories, such as dairy, snacks and pet food which helped them to then remember that the shopping list was comprised of milk, yogurt, potato chips, soda and cat litter, you might say they used a mnemonic strategy that relied on organization to compensate for the lack of memory.

Compensation strategies may come 'naturally' to those who do not experience cognitive dysfunction. That is, many individuals find out how to do things using one's strengths in order to compensate for one's weaknesses. An individual with cognitive dysfunction may not have the flexibility to see things from different perspectives or shift ideas on how to do things. They may not 'naturally' alter the course of their behavior to suit cognitive abilities. Therefore, compensatory strategies may need to be taught to individuals with cognitive dysfunction.

When teaching compensatory strategies to an individual, the goal is to strive for efficiency so that the least amount of effort is expended. Many individuals with cognitive dysfunction have limited resources to process information and do not respond well to increased demands for performance. One needs to look for the simplest and most direct route to accomplish a goal, one with minimal effort and minimal demands.

Observing an individual's behavior over time and analyzing the methods they use to perform tasks are useful when investigating compensatory strategies. Understanding individual learning styles and preferences is useful when designing compensatory strategies.

Adaptive approaches

Adaptive approaches refer to changes in the environment rather than the individual. Adaptive approaches assume that remediation may not be possible, and compensation is not probable. Adaptive approaches include prosthetic devices, memory aids, and utilization of human and nonhuman resources. For example, an individual who knows they will never be able to remember all the items for a weekend's 'to-do' list may keep a micro cassette recorder on hand and dictate each item as it occurs so that it can be retrieved at the right time.

Family members may find that they adapt themselves to an individual's cognitive dysfunction by acting on behalf of the person. This type of adaptation fosters dependence. This is not an ideal adaptive approach. It can lead to caregiver burden, frustration and eventual resentment and burnout. For example, a son living at home leaves his dirty clothes strewn about his room, ashtrays overflowing and appliances left on. A parent instructed in adaptive aids learns that the hamper cannot be behind a closed door in order to be effective. Two new, see through plastic containers, one for colored clothes and one for towels and whites, placed outside the closet are ideally situated. A commercial size, standing ashtray with safety features replaced the overflowing one on the dresser. Timers that were set for the clock radio, lights and fans were effective when incessant reminders had repeatedly failed.

Adaptive aids may be supplied on a temporary basis or permanent basis. They frequently make a significant difference for an individual with severe cognitive dysfunction to function independently.

What is a learning style?

People approach learning differently. Everyone has their learning style - their unique way of taking in, processing, organizing and learning information. A preferred learning style refers to the strategies we rely on to learn most quickly and effectively. It is important to recognize one's learning style preference and to know what learning strategies work best for each person. That way a person can more easily learn, remember, do their work and get along with others.

Why it is important to know your learning style
When you know how you learn best:

Some different learning preferences are based on:

How to get to know your learning style

It takes time to get to know your learning style but there are some questions you can ask yourself to start the process. The checklist on the next page is not intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of your learning style. Rather it is there to start you thinking about your approach to learning. If you are working with teachers and specialists, they can talk to you more about your unique approach to learning. There are also learning style inventories that you can take on line. One company that offers free learning style inventories is: Performance Learning Systems, Inc. Their web site is: Leaving OMH site

Families and friends help

Help your family member or friend find their particular learning style by talking to them about the checklist. Then, if it becomes clear that they learn best when information is presented in a certain way, remember to make an effort to accommodate those needs. If they are a visual learner, provide visual aids. If they are an afternoon learner, don't give the important information when they first wake up in the morning- wait until later in the day.

Learning style checklist

After you complete this checklist, look at your answers and think about your preferences. Then think about whether you are putting yourself in learning situations that suit your preferences.

What can family members do to help improve memory?

Memory problems may be present if you notice your family member having difficulties with some of the following items.

(Use this list as a checklist for your family member. )

Please remember:

Overall guidelines for helping someone with memory problems

  1. Repeat instructions. Become a 'broken record' without 'talking down', nagging or getting into power struggles. It is not always easy to admit you cannot remember something. No one likes to be 'wrong'.
  2. Ask an individual to repeat or paraphrase what you just told them. Allow for errors. Offer assistance with details. Focus on the information that was recalled appropriately. Repeat as needed. Recognizing information is easier than recalling information, so give an individual choices and cues to help them remember the essential information.
  3. Put things in writing when possible. Relying on auditory information is fraught with difficulties for people with poor memory. If the person writes down what you say, review it before assuming they wrote down the information correctly.
  4. Review plans in a consistent manner. Systematic approaches and routines allow an individual to practice what they have learned. Remembering how to do things can improve over time with repetition.
  5. Memory is difficult to remediate, so memory aids are frequently useful. Calendars, diaries, pill containers, watches that beep, sticky notepaper, are all useful tools to improve memory.

Specific examples and exercises to help an individual with memory problems

Narrative Case

Mary is a 33-year-old woman who has 2 years of college education. She has the diagnosis of schizophrenia and is being treated with Risperidone 4 mg. day. Her first hospitalization occurred when she was 20 years old. She has had 5 hospitalizations, has lived in 3 community residences, and does not want to live in an adult home that was recently recommended. She goes to a Continuing Day Treatment Program 3 days a week. Her goal is to volunteer at the local library. She currently lives at home with her parents who are members of a local NAMI-Family group. They have begun to address their frustration and lack of information about some of the problems they observe. They particularly notice that Mary has trouble getting up in the morning, does not seem motivated to take care of herself, forgets her doctor's appointments, needs reminders to take her medications, seems forgetful, doesn't talk very much, and is very aware that she does not think as well as she did before her illness began. Mary wants to improve her concentration and memory. She likes to attend a group that just started in her treatment program called, "Laughing and Learning", that focuses on social interaction and games to increase interaction and information processing. Mary had some cognitive testing at her day center. It was noted that she had difficulty remembering verbal information, as well as problems remembering sequences.


Mary's goal is to become more independent in daily living so that she can progress to a volunteer position in the community as a librarian assistant.

What can family members do to help improve attention?

Problems with attention may be present if you notice your family member having difficulties with some of the following items.

(Use this list as a checklist for your family member. )

Please remember:

Overall guidelines for helping someone with problems with attention

  1. Limit information to the span of attention. Keep things simple, direct, short and to the point.
  2. Don't expect someone to be able to do multiple tasks at the same time. Divided attention is extremely difficult especially with increased task complexity.
  3. Regulate the tone, volume and rhythm of speech. If you want someone to be interested, sound interesting. Enthusiasm easily captures attention.
  4. Be aware of the need for rest. Respect the limits of poor endurance.
  5. The more interesting and personally involved an individual can become in a task, the greater the attention. Find out what 'holds' someone's attention.
  6. Direct eye contact and sense of touch, when comfortable and appropriate, can be used to get someone's attention and to sustain involvement.
  7. Be aware of distractions (e.g. extraneous or background noises, multiple speakers, poor acoustics, disorganized surroundings, complex visual patterns) and attempt to simply the environment. (Conversely, when someone pays attention with more stimulation, provide sensory feedback - rocking chairs, rubber stress balls to squeeze, background music.)
  8. Provide a balance of activities across physical, mental and social domains.

Specific examples and exercises to help an individual with problems with attention
Narrative Case

Peter is a 25 year old man who likes to visit his parents for long weekends. He has been living in a supportive residence and is doing well in his recovery and rehabilitation since his discharge from the hospital for major depression and drug use. During a recent visit home, his parents noticed that he was restless and unable to sit at the table during the usual after dinner conversation. He would leave the room and watch TV but when asked what he was watching he said he was unable to follow the story. When everyone tried to join him in the living room, he would go outside and sit on the porch. His parents reported back to his case manager that Peter was distant, preoccupied and they worried about a relapse. The case manager noted that his restlessness has been associated with distractibility and limited attention span. Peter went back to his residence and felt distressed because he couldn't converse with his family and felt sad that he is disappointing them.


Given Peter's distractibility and withdrawal from conversation, the family has been asked to consider alternative ways of engaging together as a family unit.

What can family members do to help improve critical thinking skills?

Difficulties with critical thinking skills (related to reasoning, analytical thinking, problem solving) may be present if you notice your family member having difficulties with some of the following items.

(Use this list as a checklist for your family member. )

Please remember:

Overall guidelines for helping someone with difficulties with critical thinking

  1. Understand the need for routines, systematic procedures, organization and structure. Provide supervision as needed, especially when judgment is needed for safety.
  2. Develop acronyms or short commands to eliminate impulsive actions. "STOP!" "SOS". "HELP". Attempt to make these cues automatic triggers to evaluate the situation at hand fully before anyaction is taken.
  3. Provide encouragement and praise for actions that are initiated or maintained and followed-through by individuals who have trouble getting started or don't complete tasks.
  4. Offer guiding questions ("what's the first step?"; "how would you begin?"; "what do you think?") instead of ready-made answers for individuals who become overly dependent on assistance or lack confidence in decision-making.
  5. Demonstrate procedures and sequences to elicit awareness about steps taken during everyday problem solving.
  6. Use self-talk by verbalizing out loud. "Metacognition", thinking about your thinking, helps to improve feedback and connections between thoughts and actions.
  7. Don't make assumptions about how an individual can perform daily tasks without asking how they would solve the problem or observing the actual performance.

Specific examples and exercises to help an individual with difficulties with critical thinking

Narrative Case

Mitchell is 43 years old and has not had a hospitalization for 15 years. His schizophrenia is well treated, but he continues to have residual negative symptoms, is notably unable to plan activities and has poor daily problemsolving skills. He does not have any friends, but continues to visit his brother's family on a weekly basis. Mitchell has been unsuccessful in returning to supported employment, which he continues to express interest in, and has been consistent in his attendance at a psychosocial club. Feedback from his job coach notes that he is fixed in the way that he approaches tasks and cannot ask for help. Mitchell is a resident in a supervised apartment program and has a roommate. Everyone agrees that Mitchell has been persistent and motivated to improve his skills. He acknowledges that he is unable to grasp how to go about making things happen in his day-today life and wants to become more flexible in his thinking.


Mitchell will benefit from trying new activities to improve his thinking skills, especially in the areas of problem solving, cognitive flexibility and making decisions.

Common questions that families ask about cognitive dysfunction in mental illness
Are cognitive deficits caused by the medications that my family members are taking?

Many individuals receiving neuroleptics (antipsychotic medication) will repeatedly focus on medications as being the causative agent for cognitive dysfunction. Most of the time, this may not be the case. Cognitive deficits are frequently a symptom of the illness. There are however, some exceptions. For example, anticholinergic medications, such as Cogentin, given for side-effects of typical neuroleptics (e.g. Haldol, Prolixin), may impair memory functions. While this may be the case, stopping medications is usually not an optimum response. The trade-off of recurring positive symptoms (e.g. hallucinations, delusions) when medications are terminated would not offset the small gain in improved cognition. All individuals need to continue to work with their psychopharmacologist or treating psychiatrist when evaluating the medication regimen, stopping or switching medications, or optimizing the specific medication plan.

Can medications improve cognition?

There is much attention focused on the newer atypical neuroleptics, such as Clozapine, Olanzapine, Risperidone, Ziprasidone, Quetiapine, and whether or not they are effective in "improving" cognition. Currently, there are no dramatic or consistent results that any one medication has the power to increase cognitive skills to the level of normal functioning. There are, however, some studies that suggest that some of the newer neuroleptics may provide minimal benefits in certain specific areas of cognition.

This research is ongoing and definitive results and comparisons of medications with each other will continue to be a focus of attention. In addition, adjunctive medications or additional agents that are specifically aimed at improving cognition have been targeted for development and future investigation, because the needs are so apparent.

Will my family member regain their thinking abilities and academic skills and return to their previous level of functioning?

Each person is unique and has patterns of functioning related to cognitive development that occurred prior to the onset of serious mental illness. Typically, a family member is overwhelmed when an individual who was a good student during high school now exhibits compromised functioning and cognitive decline. These are individuals with many strengths that may remain intact and that need to be rediscovered (e.g. use of vocabulary, general knowledge and fund of information). The individual may continue to feel competent while using these cognitive skills in word games, such as Scrabble, or activities that focus on factual information, such as Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy. Certainly, an individual with above average intellect or academic background will have a foundation to draw upon. On the other hand, discouragement and disappointment regarding current difficulties need to be handled with compassion and encouragement to motivate the individual to work on realistic goals and efforts to continue to address residual deficits and areas of weakness.

How are negative symptoms of schizophrenia related to cognitive dysfunction?

Negative symptoms relate to difficulties with communication, known as 'alogia' (i.e. not having much to say); difficulties expressing emotions, or 'affective flattening' (i.e. lack of facial expression and emotional spontaneity); difficulties with planning and doing activities, known as 'avolition' (i.e. problems with motivation and doing things on one's own, especially without structure); and difficulties with experiencing pleasure, known as 'anhedonia' (i.e. little experience of enjoyment). Frequently, individuals with prominent negative symptoms also seem to have cognitive dysfunction. While they appear to be independent of each other, together they seem to add to the individual's poor social, community and vocational functioning.

Where can my family member receive treatment that focuses on cognitive deficits?

More professionals are becoming aware of the need for treatment that addresses the cognitive deficits of individuals with chronic mental illness. There is an increase in research efforts and training for practitioners who want to learn specific techniques for cognitive remediation. In fact, research in this area is quickly contributing to the application of the best practices of psychiatric rehabilitation. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are beginning to adopt the practice of cognitive remediation, in a variety of ways, from individualized treatment planning that incorporates cognitive strengths and weaknesses, to computerized assisted learning programs, to group modalities that incorporate systematic principles of remediation, compensation and adaptation. If you contact resources in your area, you may be able to find professionals who provide evaluations and treatment of cognitive dysfunction. Becoming a family advocate in your region will help the progression towards wider availability of this important treatment.

Resources for families

Institutional resources

315 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10013
Contact: Ellen Stoller

This agency has an ongoing cognitive remediation program as part of their Intensive Psychiatric Treatment Programs and Continuing Day Treatment at various sites. Cognitive remediation services are integrated into an individual's rehabilitation goals (e. g. living, socializing, learning, working). It is an exemplary treatment center for state of the art rehabilitation technology.

120 Wall Street, 25th floor
New York, New York 10015
Contact: Andrea White

This agency recognizes the need to integrate cognitive remediation into the support services they provide for mentally ill and chemically dependent individuals who are homeless. They have a well established Learning Center which provides an exemplary setting for the treatment of cognitive problems.

The Family Resource Center

Located in the library of the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research,140 Old Orangeburg Road, Orangeburg, New York 10962, telephone #845-398-6576, Stuart Moss, MLS, Library Director

The resources include books by and about individuals with serious mental illness, videotapes, reference guides and staff who are willing to assist family

Call to arrange times to visit.


Cognitive Remediation in Psychiatry
An annual conference cosponsored by Montefiore Medical Center, Institute of Living, Kessel Foundation, FEGS that convenes the first Friday in June. Well-known experts share research findings and clinical practices from a variety of perspectives. Contact to be placed on the mailing list for the next conference.


Christine Adamec (1996). How to live with a mentally ill person: a handbook of day-to-day strategies. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

A mother of a daughter with schizophrenia shares strategies that have been useful. Topics include ways to support medication compliance, financial aspects of medical care, and communication with health care professionals and tips for self-care for caregivers.

Xavier Amador (with Anna-Lisa Johanson). (2000). I am not sick, I don't need help!: helping the seriously mentally ill accept treatment: a practical guide for families and therapists. Peconic, NY: Vida Press.

Individuals with cognitive deficits may lack self-awareness and insight. This book deals with tough issues in a practical way.

Charles A. Kaufman and Jack M. Gorman (eds.) (1996). Schizophrenia: new directions for clinical research and treatment. Larchmont, NY.
A compendium of articles written by members of Columbia University's Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry Departments that covers brain physiology,etiology of the illness, and the impact of the illness on the individual, the family and society.

Irene S. Levine and Stuart Moss (September 2000). Mental Health Resources on the Web for Families. Published by the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.

An overview of the Internet and how to access up-to-date resources on the web. This reference guide lists important website addresses and how-to's for searching and evaluation of sources.

Diane T. Marsh and Rex M. Dickens (1997) Troubled journey: coming to terms with the mental illness of a sibling or parent. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Reviews issues related to disruptions in the life cycle of a family related to coping with a seriously mentally ill family member. Many first-person examples are shared.

Alice Medalia, Nadine Revheim and Tiffany Herlands (2002) Remedition of Cognitive Deficits in Psychiatric Patients: A Clinician's Manual New York: Montefiore Medical Center.

A "how to" manual that very clearly describes how to set up and run a cognitive remediation program for people with psychiatric disorders. It is intended for trained ;mental health clinicians who want to learn how to provide cognitive remediation services.

Bert Pepper and Hilary Ryglewicz (1996.) Lives at risk: understanding and treating young people with dual disorders. New York: Free Press.

This book addresses a group of individuals who struggle with substance abuse and/or personality disorders in addition to the problems of serious mental illness from a biopsychosocial perspective. An excellent resource for dealing with multiple complex issues, including "transinstitutionalization" (e. g. from hospital setting to jails and prisons).

This is the "standard" reference book on schizophrenia that describes causes, symptoms, treatment and course of the illness. Focuses on education, advocacy and proactive concerns for the individual with the illness as well as for the family.

Peter J. Weiden, Patricia L. Scheifler, Ronald J. Diamond, and Ruth Ross. (1999). Breakthroughs in antipsychotic medications: a guide for consumers, families, and clinicians. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

An excellent reference that describes what medications do and how, reviews technical aspects of multiple medications, including new atypical antipsychotics, discusses side-effects, risks and benefits of switching medications, optimizing medication regimens and dealing with noncompliance issues. Includes a comprehensive glossary of specific terms to enhance understanding of psychiatric jargon.


Mental Health Recovery Newsletter
PO Box 301 W. Dummerston, VT 05357
802-254-2092 (phone)
802-257-7499 (fax)

This free, quarterly newsletter, published by Mary Ellen Copeland, MS, MA, is designed for those who want more information about recovering from disabling psychiatric conditions. Known for her Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workbooks for people with depression and manic depression, workshops and training for Recovery Educators, CD-ROMs, and videos, Ms. Copeland provides inspiration and structured self-help activities for coping with psychiatric symptoms on a daily basis.

NARSAD Research Newsletter
The National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression
NARSAD Research Fund
60 Cutter Mill Road, Suite 404
Great Neck, NY 11021

Up-to-the-minute reporting on the latest research studies and future trends, including results of research projects supported by the organization, announcements of fundraising events, and availability of educational materials, free of charge.

Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC)
330 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 220
Arlington, VA 22201

This nonprofit organization focuses on eliminating legal or clinical barriers that interfere with timely and humane treatment for individuals with severe brain disorders who are not receiving appropriate medical care. The overall goal is to prevent the devastating consequences, such as homelessness, suicide, victimization, worsening of symptoms, violence, and incarceration, if individuals are not treated. Information about treatment laws and the benefits of medication compliance are provided. This center is affiliated with the work of E. Fuller Torrey, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill. Comprehensive selections of educational software at discount prices.

CCV Software
P. O. Box 6724
Charleston, WV 25362-0724
(fax) 1-800-321-4297

Educational software and related products

Critical Thinking Books & Software
P. O. Box 448
Pacific Grove, CA 93950-0448
(fax) 1-831-393-3277

Activity books and software that focus on analytical and perceptual skills.

Wellness Reproductions & Publishing Inc.
23945 Mercantile Road, Suite K03
Beachwood, Ohio 44122-5924
(fax) 1-800501-8120

Books, games, CDs, posters, and audiotapes related to life skills, relaxation, social interaction and self-esteem.

Imaginart Therapy Materials
307 Arizona Street
Bisbee, AZ 85603

Products related to daily living, mental health, cognitive rehabilitation and caregiver resources.

Independent Living Products
6227 N. 22nd Drive
Phoenix, AZ 85015-1955
(fax) 602-335-0577

Selective products from this catalog may be useful adaptive aids (e. g. low vision products, a check writing guide).

An AbilityOne Company
4 Sammons Court
Bollingbrook, IL 60440

Large selection of adaptive equipment for wide-range of disabilities and needs (e.g. medication reminders). See "Enrichments Catalogue".


8630 Fenton Street, Suite 930
Silver Springs, MD.

An alphabetical online listing of links to various suppliers and organizations related to individuals whose disabling conditions interfere with independent

Learning style inventories

Performance Learning Systems, Inc.

Provides learning style inventories on line.

World wide web site

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of New York State (NAMI-NYS)

National Institute of Mental Health
http://www.nimh. nih. gov/

National Mental Health Consumers' Self-Help Clearinghouse

The Schizophrenia Home Page

Mental Health Association of New York State

Federation of Families For Children's Mental Health

OMH Family Liaisons