Mental health problems of varying degrees will affect one in four people and one in one hundred people will experience serious mental illness. Mental health problems are much more common than most of us imagine and remain steeped in fear and stigma. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2020 depression will become one of the major causes of death in developed nations. Despite the common occurrence of mental health problems we remain less than clear about the causes of mental illness. What we do know is that early diagnosis and access to effective treatment does have a positive impact on people living with mental health problems.
Despite sophisticated health care systems and services it is clear that close family members carry the primary responsibility of caring for people experiencing long term mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and dementia in older people. Carers often feel overwhelmed and unsupported and are vulnerable to developing problems of their own as a result of the stress of supporting a loved one. Some carers also experience ambivalent feelings about their role and too often experience feelings of guilt. Caring for a relative with longer term mental illness can also lead to feelings of isolation and narrowed social networks.
Research shows that carers who can talk about such complex and stressful issues are more likely to keep their own health in good order and are more resilient and able to sustain their caring role. The first key issue that carers need to understand is that caring is a stressful job and that the mix of feelings described above are a perfectly normal response. Carers also need to understand that they are not usually the cause of problems in a relatives mental state. The ability to explore reliable information about mental illness can also help a carer gain a better understanding of the problems they are living with on a daily basis. The old adage that “knowledge is power” is especially true in making sense of mental illness, so where can carers find help?
There are a wide range of web based resources aimed at supporting carers, these include MIND, RETHINK, the Manic Depression Fellowship, NHS Direct, Age Concern, the Alzheimer's Disease Society and many more. These national organisations also arrange many local support groups where carers can meet and share their experiences with each other in a safe and structured environment. Here in Andalucia there is no reason why a local group of carers cannot be arranged, using the materials provided from these major mental health charities.
Carers also have the right to a professional assessment of their own needs by health professionals, including doctors, nurses and other therapists. What carers do value is the opportunity to talk about their challenges with an experienced therapist or counsellor. Having the opportunity to freely discuss feelings with someone who can offer professional support from an objective viewpoint can and does help carers handle pressures more effectively. I offer this service to carers through face to face discussion, but also offer support via the telephone or via web cam. Some people like the idea of being able to share problems and issues with me whilst they remain in the comfort of their own homes. Telephone and web cam based consultations allow this easily and allow people to access support at times convenient to them.
I have focused on some of the problems faced by carers of people with mental illness but carers supporting people with long-term physical health conditions such as parkinsons disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome can face similar issues. The issues of caring for someone with long-term physical ill health may be different to mental health, but this responsibility can also be isolating and stressful. If you are undertaking a caring role for a loved one and need to seek advice or talk please do not hesitate to contact me.
Tom Sobel, MA, BACP