Caregiver Mental Health: When Caring Takes Its Toll

Caregiver Mental Health: When Caring Takes Its Toll

Caregiver mental health is often overlooked, but caregivers have an elevated risk for developing depression, anxiety, and grief-related illnesses.

Caring for a family member with a physical or mental ailment is hard work! The pressure of taking care of a loved one affects not only caregiver mental health but also impacts the physical, social, and emotional health of the caregiver.

Statistics on Caregiver Mental Health

According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, there are approximately 43.5 million caregivers in the U.S. who have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. Of these, about 15.7 million adult family caregivers take care of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Studies estimate that between 40 to 70% of all caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, with approximately one-quarter to one-half of these caregivers meeting the diagnostic criteria for major depression. In a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, about 60% of participant caregivers developed a depressive and/or anxiety disorder within 24 months of caregiving for their spouses with dementia. The results of the study indicated that spousal caregivers of persons with dementia have a high risk to develop a mental disorder.

The Caregiver Burden

Evidence shows that most caregivers are ill-prepared for their role and provided with little or no support. Therefore, the burden of taking care of a debilitated loved one over time can result in fatigue overload. Emotional, mental, and physical health problems ensue from complex caregiving situations. Healthcare professionals should be the first line of defense for the caregiver. Recognizing caregiver stress and anxiety, and offering treatment options for physical and psychological symptoms is a public health priority.

Promoting a Healthy Mental State for Caregivers

Research demonstrates that caregiver mental health can be protected by education, support programs (i.e. caregiving groups), and financial support. Additionally, a caregiver can benefit from social support or psychological counseling:

  • Social Support. Caregivers need occasional breaks from their daily routine. However, they often feel guilty for “leaving” their loved one in another person’s care. Therefore, it’s critical for the healthcare professional to encourage the caregiver to take breaks. Ask the caregiver if another family member, friend, or someone from church is nearby and willing to help. Or, the healthcare professional can facilitate breaks by contacting a community support organization – even if help can only be provided for a couple of hours each month or week, taking these much-needed breaks can greatly reduce stress. It’s also beneficial to the patient when a caregiver takes breaks as decreased stress levels enable the caregiver to express more empathy and compassion.
  • Psychological Counseling. Research supports therapy sessions with caregivers to cope with stress. Dose-appropriated psychological counseling with targeted goals leads to positive results in caregiver mental health. Moreover, counseling helps in early diagnosing and detection of any mental health problems a caregiver may be facing. As a result, caregivers can find the appropriate treatment and resources they need to manage their physical, social, or emotional health.

Remember, healthy people make for a healthy community. Keeping caregivers healthy is key to maintaining our nation’s long-term care system.

Learn More:

  1. Family Caregiver Alliance
  2. Kakuma R, Minas H, Ginneken N, Dal Poz MR, Desiraju K, Morris J, Saxena S, Scheffler Human resources for mental health care: current situation and strategies for action. Lancet. 2011; 378: 1654- 1663.
  3. Garland AF, Bickman L, Chorpita Change What? Identifying Quality Improvement Targets by Investigating Usual Mental Health Care. Adm Policy Mental Health. 2010; 37: 15-26.
  4. Joling KJ, Harm WJ, Maerwijk V, Veldhuijzen AE, Horst HE, Scheltens P, Smit F, Hout HPJ. The Two-Year Incidence of Depression and Anxiety Disorders in spousal Caregivers of Persons with Dementia: Who is at the Greatest Risk? The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2015; 23(3): 293-303.
  5. Joling KJ, Harm WJ, Maerwijk V, Veldhuijzen AE, Horst HE, Scheltens P, Smit F, Hout HPJ.Does a Family Meetings Intervention Prevent Depression and Anxiety in Family Caregivers of Dementia Patients? Randomized PloS ONE. 2012; 7(1): 1-10.
  6. Casado RP, Perez-Cruz M, Frias-Osuna Coping, subjective burden and anxiety among family caregivers of older dependent. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2014; 23 (24): 3335-3344.
  7. Grunfeld, E. (2004). Family caregiver burden: Results from a longitudinal study of breast cancer patients and their principal caregivers. Canadian Medical Association Journal,170(12): 1795-1801.
This article was written by Bijal Shah, Clinical Educator

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