No one is born as a caregiver, although it is a role that life obliges us to fulfil.
Being a caregiver means being a family member (or a paid helper) who regularly looks after a sick, elderly or disabled person (Oxford Dictionaries).
It seems that on average caregivers are women, in their mid 40s, who spend about 20 hours per week (or more) taking care of another person, usually their mother or a young family member or their own partner.
Being a caregiver implies a direct contact with different types of diseases, from dementia to physical illnesses and mental problems. Another responsibility is usually helping the person carrying out different daily tasks: from assuring the compliance to pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments to monitoring the general health of the assisted person and helping in daily routines…
The list is potentially very long, depending on the severity and type of disability.
The sure thing is that being a caregiver can become a full-time job and it can involve great responsibilities, a considerable amount of stress and very often putting the other person’s needs first with the consequent risk of disregarding our own personal needs.
Caregivers and mental health
In particular, if the assisted person suffers from a mental health condition the scenario may get even more distressful and complexed.
Mental health problems are unfortunately still marked by stigma and prejudice and the general information about them is still not sufficient. As a consequence the emotional burden of the caregivers may be even heavier and it is not uncommon for caregivers to experience anxiety and/or depressive symptoms. Scientific research shows that family members of schizophrenic and bipolar patients are particularly affected by the issue, with between 30 to 60% experiencing depressive symptoms (NAC, 1997; Heru et al, 2005).
Given this delicate and complex background, being a caregiver or living with a person suffering from a psychiatric disorder, is doubtless a tough job that implies many challenges and that can sometimes make us feel isolated and not supported enough.
If you are a caregiver
If you find yourself in a similar situation, keep in mind that your health (also your mental health) should come first, as it allows you to better take care of the other person. Plus, a very important tool is information: getting to know the specific illness that the person you are taking care of is suffering from may give you better tools to deal with it as well as foresee any possible complication.
If you feel too burdened don’t be ashamed to ask for help and cooperation to your close family and your closest friends and use the services provided by your community; very often hospitals and clinics organise support or self-help groups specifically for caregivers. Even if often we may feel lonely and not fully understood by the people who surround us, reality is different: there are many caregivers who experience the same feelings and sharing can bring a powerful relief.
On the contrary, if you are experiencing intense symptoms of anxiety or prolonged sadness you may start thinking about seeking a more specialised help and perhaps beginning psychotherapy to better deal with the whole situation.
Remember that it is not possible to take care of everything on your own; sometimes a little help could really bring much more relief than you may think.