Caregiver Mental Health
Over 40 million Americans act as caregivers to friends or loved ones. As you might imagine (or already know), much of this work is emotionally and physically intense. Even so, many caregiver arrangements are often informal and unpaid.
This combination of a high stress environment combined with trying to take care of their own needs means caregivers are much more likely to suffer from both physical and mental health issues. They often deal with these issues alongside a lack of financial and emotional support.
Here, we’ll discuss mental health issues common among CDS caregivers as well as ways to address them.
Caregiver mental health issues
All caregivers experience challenges on the job, but those who are caring for family and friends are at particularly high risk for mental health issues.
It’s common for caregivers to experience the following problems:
- Chronic exhaustion
- Inability to sleep
- Anger, frustration, and guilt
- Feelings of helplessness, worry, an uncertainty
- A loss of self-identity and low self-esteem
These problems often lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
The statistics are eye-opening when it comes to depression among caregivers. Studies have found that somewhere between 40-70% of caregivers meet the clinical criteria for some form of clinical depression, and 10-35% of them suffer from major depressive disorder. It’s particularly common among those who care for patients with dementia.
The effects of depression can be long-term if they’re ignored. In fact, even if the person needing care is later placed in a nursing facility, the caregiver’s depression often remains. This disease does not just go away on its own, and it can lead to anxiety, substance abuse, and a variety of chronic illnesses that can decrease a person’s quality of life.
For those who continue to care for their friends and loved ones without seeking help, it’s important to consider the effects that caregiver depression has on the patient as well. Depression affects a person’s ability to be a present and attentive caregiver. That’s why it’s very important for caregivers to get support from professionals as well as other family and friends.
Caregiver stress and frustration
Many people fall into the role of caregiver without knowing exactly how it will affect them, and sometimes they have no choice due to financial constraints. Some caregivers may even need to give up their employment - in whole or in part - to take on these new duties. Frequently, they do it without any formal training that would help them deal with the resulting emotional upheaval.
It’s natural to feel stress as well as frustration when you’re in the role of caregiver, especially if you have a limited support network. As a result, roughly 16% of caregivers report feeling emotionally strained, and over 20% feel exhausted when they go to bed at night.
This kind of chronic stress combined with poor sleep can contribute to cognitive decline, memory loss, and other physical ailments.
Physical health of a caregiver
Mental and physical health are closely related and poor mental health can lead to unhealthy behaviors that have negative physical health consequences. For example, depression has been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Being a caregiver is time-consuming, and it’s hard to find the time for self-care. In fact, 11% of caregivers report that their personal health had declined since taking on these responsibilities.
Caregivers are also more susceptible to acute diseases as a result of a diminished immune response. Studies show that caregivers have 23% more stress hormones, and their antibody response is 15% lower than the average person’s. As a result, they’re more likely to become sick with an infectious disease and even experience slower wound healing.
As you can see, the mental health issues that can come with caregiving responsibilities are serious enough to warrant intervention. Getting help will also make a person a better caregiver.
Tips for protecting your mental health as a caregiver
Caregiving can be a rewarding experience and not all caregivers report negative health consequences. But it’s important to note that those who have positive experiences often find time to engage in healthy behaviors and have access to good coping methods such as support networks.
In order to give care, you need to take care of yourself. And while many people feel guilty taking the time to indulge in self-care or feel guilty asking for help, these are some of the most important things a caregiver can do to improve the arrangement.
Of course, it’s not always that easy, especially for the 19% of caregivers who report that the person they care for requires constant attention. This leaves very little time (or unpredictable periods of time) in which to manage their own well-being. Over 30% of caregivers report having their free time reduced and their social lives limited because of their responsibilities.
There’s no magic solution to creating more hours in the day, but prioritizing one’s health should be non-negotiable. Here are some places to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed, isolated, lonely, exhausted, and on your way to poor mental or physical health:
· Get educated
If we’re constantly focused on someone else’s well-being, it’s easy to fall out of the habit of checking in with ourselves. But it’s important to keep an eye out for signs that our health is waning.
One thing you can do is educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of mental health issues. Stress affects everyone differently, so it’s important to learn how it affects you, specifically. Early warning signs can include everything from headaches to digestive issues.
· Get treatment
Seeking treatment can be a challenge on many levels, including financially, but there are more and more options online and in person for seeking care. You might even consider mentioning your concerns to your loved one’s doctor so they can refer you to medical or community services that can help.
It’s important to get a professional assessment and be open to the possibility that medical treatment is needed. There’s no reason to feel guilt or shame when mental health issues are so common among caregivers.
· Find a support group
Support groups now come in many formats, allowing caregivers to participate when they can find the time. Help is available via in-person support groups, through local health organizations, churches, and even on social media.
Even if you don’t want to share personal details of your situation with others, support groups are great places to get tips on how to cope or even see proof that you’re not alone in your struggle.
· Take time for self-care
Finding time for yourself is usually easier said than done. But knowing just how important it is to keep yourself healthy is reason enough to make the effort. It’s important to get over personal barriers such as fear, feelings of inadequacy, and guilt related to taking time for yourself.
Self-care can take many forms and can be as simple as taking a walk, calling a friend, practicing a short meditation or prayer, or adjusting your bedtime to get some extra rest.
You may feel helpless to stop the illness of your loved one, but you still have the power to control your own well-being.
· Ask for help
Asking for and accepting help can be a challenge for anyone. Those who are caring for loved ones may feel like it’s their responsibility alone to shoulder the burden.
An important first step to improving your own health is to figure out what your needs are. Do you need a day off? Would someone bringing over a meal help you manage your schedule? Do you need help running errands or tending to your home?
It’s important to accept the help that people may offer you. There’s no prize for doing it all alone. So if the offer seems genuine or the person you’re caring for has other loved ones eager to step in, the best thing you can do is let them.
If you have trouble relinquishing control, you can always come up with your own list of needs and let friends and relatives choose which ones they feel most comfortable taking on. It’s a win-win.
· Get sleep
We all have to get adequate sleep for our bodies to function. But, of course, this is another thing that’s easier said than done.
If your sleep issues are related to mental or physical stress, then it’s important to be assessed by a doctor. But there are interventions you can try at home as well, including adhering to a schedule, practicing good sleep hygiene, limiting caffeine and alcohol, and developing a pre-bed routine.
The exhaustion many caregivers feel can make exercise feel like a chore. But physical activity has been shown to enhance mood, reduce stress, and alleviate mood disorders. Exercise need not take the form of a long run or a trip to the gym. A 15-30 minute walk, time spent gardening, and gentle forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi all count.
The key is not to avoid exercise just because you feel like you don’t have time for a full workout. In this case, something – anything – is better than nothing.
· Find a balance
Most people find it hard to find balance in their lives, regardless of their responsibilities. But giving some thought to what makes you feel fulfilled and then making a plan to achieve it is the first step towards taking control of your life and health.
If caregiving takes up the majority of your free time, making plans and schedules, accepting help from others when it’s offered, and learning what makes you feel best physically and emotionally are crucial to taking control of your life.
By now it should be clear that the best caregivers are the ones who tend to their own needs so they can build the physical and mental resilience to handle caregiving responsibilities as well as feel fulfilled in their own lives. If you’re suffering from mental health issues, it’s important to know you’re not alone.