An annual survey of carers has just stated that 72% of carers report mental ill health as a result of caring – higher than the impact on their physical health.
Lorna Easterbrook supports the carers amongst us – those selfless people who are responsible for providing or arranging care for a friend or relative who cannot care for themselves. She spoke to us about the mental health challenges – and surprising benefits – faced by carers.
Q. How can being a carer impact mental health?
A. Being a carer impacts on your mental health in a number of ways. If the person in your life needs support because of a disability, life changing injury, or serious illness, you might find yourself frequently anxious, asking yourself – are they okay? Are they playing down any difficulties? Are their care professionals doing a good job? Are they eating well? Are they drinking too much alcohol?
Providing any form of care is an extra call on your time and energy and an extra responsibility, which can be very draining. You may be worried about money – can you keep working and still support this person? Can you afford the travel for extra visits or other costs? You may find being a carer and having a job (and perhaps other family roles to play) means you have little time for socialising, so you may become isolated from friends and stop pursuing hobbies. When you are tired and stressed it can become harder to stay positive, or to sleep well at night, or to concentrate – all of which affects your own mental health.
Carers don’t necessarily start out with 100% good mental health themselves, so extra caring responsibilities may have a serious negative impact. And if you are caring for someone with mental ill health you may find this additionally stressful – especially if you’re providing most of their daily emotional support, or if you can’t have coherent conversations with the person you’re caring for.
As carers, we worry that we are doing or saying the right thing from the cared for person’s point of view. We worry on behalf of the person about their situation (even when they ask us not to worry!). We worry about how we can continue to support someone and still do everything else we need and want to do. We worry about no longer being able to provide care. We worry about failing. At the same time, being a carer can mean extraordinary shared conversations and experiences – even if these are few and far between. These insights, strong feelings of being connected, and moments of shared joy, impact very positively on our mental health.
Q. Is there enough awareness in the workplace of the mental health impact on carers?
A. Workplaces need a fairly sophisticated understanding of what it is to be a carer in order to be aware of the impact on mental health. Generally, supportive workplaces are better at understanding the practical side of being a carer – needing time off work to take someone to a health appointment, for example. They’re not always so aware of how being a carer can make you feel, and the impact this can have on your mental health – especially if the caring role goes on for a long time.
Q. Do UK bosses do enough to ensure that vulnerable carers are supported at work?
A. Some UK bosses are great; but there’s a lot happening between now and 2020 that should mean all UK bosses get to be really good at supporting vulnerable carers at work. The Carers Action Plan, published by the Government in June 2018, sets out work being carried out across government departments over the next 2 years. For employers, the Department for Work and Pensions is working with Business in the Community to share existing best practice of carer policies and practices. The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy is considering additional employment rights for carers; and by July 2018, the Department of Health and Social Care, together with Employers for Carers, will have finished piloting a carer-friendly employer benchmarking scheme. Read about it here.
Q. Do you have any tips for carers on how to look after their own mental health?
A. One really important thing is to acknowledge that all the extra kind, supportive, and helpful things that you are doing for someone you care about means you are a carer, and start using the word ‘carer’ especially when you are trying to find out about help. The charity MIND has a really good booklet about looking after your mental (and physical) health as a carer.
All the usual good health advice applies: a good diet; enough sleep; time outdoors; some form of exercise, something you enjoy doing with people you enjoy being with. Having some kind of break from the caring role is really important too. The two main carers’ charities in the UK – Carers UK, and Carers Trust – both have a lot of information (online, and through telephone helplines) for carers, including about working whilst caring. Carers Trust also has details of the network of local carers centres around the UK. Both charities run online forums, where you can (anonymously, if you prefer) talk to other carers about how you feel, or ask advice from people who may be in the same boat as you.
And it’s incredibly important to cut yourself some slack: make sure you give yourself some credit and some praise. You are doing something incredible.