Support needs when caring for a person with a mental illness

Support needs when caring for a person with a mental illness

22 May 2014

With the changes in mental health policy that have taken place over previous decades, the majority of support for people with mental illness now falls to informal carers in the community, usually family.

Carers play a vital support role for many people with mental illness, but they can experience major personal impacts as a result. This is particularly the case for young carers caring for a parent, where research literature overwhelming identifies long-term impacts on educational attainment, labour force participation, and emotional wellbeing.

Findings from the 2012 Carers NSW Biennial Carer Survey give some insight into the needs of mental health carers compared to carers in other contexts (e.g., disability, aging).

The survey found that compared to others, mental health carers rated their own health and mental health significantly worse, and were more likely to say they need supportive services for themselves. Nearly 60% of mental health carers reported that they need support, compared to a third of carers in other situations.

As a group, mental health carers are more likely than others to have used coping strategies and accessed support from sources including GPs, other family members, psychologists, counsellors, and support groups. Despite being more likely to have accessed support, mental health carers are also more likely to experience barriers to accessing services – by far the most commonly reported in this survey was that their caring responsibilities take priority over their own needs.

Although mental health carers are more likely to use coping strategies, services and personal supports, they still experience worse health and mental health than other carers. Whilst we must acknowledge the importance of carers’ needs in other contexts, these results highlight major concerns for carers of people with mental illness.

These findings raise important questions about the support mental health carers receive. Despite receiving more than other carers, the nature of the caring role in mental health may mean that they need even more support. We must inevitably also ask whether the quality (as opposed to quantity) of services is the major concern. The effectiveness, availability, timing, appropriateness, and flexibility of services are all significant issues when it comes to providing support that will improve the health and wellbeing of mental health carers. These areas therefore warrant further research, evaluation and practice development.

The effectiveness of services for people with mental illness must also be considered. Even when carers receive high quality support for themselves, if those they care for do not receive the same, carer support services and supports are simply less able to provide the desired outcome for the carer.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, the results of this survey strongly suggest that current support services and coping strategies for mental health carers are not as effective as they might be in effectively supporting their mental and physical health. Carers are the unpaid and often invisible workforce, providing the lions’ share of support required by many people with mental illness, often at considerable personal stress and sacrifice. As such, this is an issue worthy of considerable attention from practitioners and policy makers alike.  

Further reading

Complete the current 2014 Carers NSW Survey and read more about past surveys.

Read more about the ways Carers NSW can assist carers.

Read more about the Carers NSW carer advisory line.

Read an article on Caring for families caring for a person with a disability.

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Timothy Broady

Timothy Broady is a Senior Research and Development Officer, Carers NSW.

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