Mental health: family carers carry long-term cost
Wesley Mission on May 14 released an eight-point plan to help support people caring for relatives with mental health issues after its study of more than 1,000 Australians revealed that caring comes at a profound personal cost.
The Wesley Report, Keeping minds well: Caring till it hurts shows that almost 90 per cent of people who have cared for a spouse or relative with mental health issue reported a harmful impact on their own physical and mental health.
Three in four caregivers said their role had adversely affected their relationships with family and friends and 57 per cent said their employment and financial situation had deteriorated.
The CEO of Wesley Mission, the Rev. Dr Keith Garner, said the Wesley Report revealed that caregivers too often carried the cost of caring and were the unsung heroes of the community.
“They more often than not sacrifice their time, money and even their careers to ensure that those they support can manage and fulfil their often challenging lives,” Dr Garner said.
“Yet their caring comes at a cost, with an overwhelming number declaring that their caring experience as a child has provided a lasting negative into adult life. The challenge for us as a community is to provide better support these people and to reduce the stigma associated with caring.”
The Wesley Report found that the majority (64 per cent) of carers had been in their caregiving role for more than six years and almost half (43 per cent) indicated they had been caregiving for more than ten years.
The impact felt by those who started caregiving when they were under 16 is considerably higher than those who were exposed when they were older.
“The role affects their financial status, and mental and physical health,” Dr Garner said. “They are also more likely to have experienced stigma because of their association with a relative with a mental health issue.”
For many caregivers, stigma remains an enduring concern. Those who had been involved in a caregiving role for longer were more likely to report that stigma had affected their family, them personally and the wellbeing of their relative.
The Wesley Report found that people who were exposed to the caregiving role at an early age were most likely to be afraid to ask for help, despite having positive attitudes toward health services.
“This is a challenge for all mental health providers,” Dr Garner said. “There are significant numbers of young Australians who are caring for a mother, father or sibling but are reluctant to seek help. These young people try to cope on their own. We need to end the stigma around mental health and make it easier for young people to access support services. The long-term cost of not doing so is enormous.”
Most respondents (84 per cent) indicated that their relative’s illness had been formally diagnosed by a health professional such as a GP, psychologist or other mental health professional.
Caregivers use a range of coping mechanisms, preferring things like taking a break, finding comfort in their faith and looking on the positive side to seeking professional help or taking up exercise. They are less likely to use avoidance strategies such as pretending to others that everything is satisfactory or avoiding discussion.
Age appears to be related to the use of avoidance coping strategies, with younger caregivers being more likely to report using all avoidance strategies than older respondents.
Among the recommendations are a more cohesive, proactive approach among health services, GPs and schools to identifying young carers and ensuring that their needs are met through referrals to relevant services, support and advice.
Wesley Mission also suggests that it be mandatory for teachers to be provided with an understanding of warning signs for children or young people who may be in distress from caregiving.
It also recommends that professionals are not only informed about the experiences of the patient but also about the experiences of the family in the caring role. This could be implemented in the workplace and during the tertiary training of health, teaching and allied professionals, by ensuring a working understanding of appropriate responses.
Frontline service providers should be aware of family and carer needs as they treat a person with a mental health issue and facilitate appropriate support and responses.
“Wesley Mission asks both state and federal governments to ensure the capacity of intervention and respite services so that all carers have access to visible and culturally appropriate support when it is needed,” Dr Garner said. “We also recommend greater cross-centre information sharing to provide more effective care for both caregivers and those in their care.”
Download the Wesley Report here.