Family caregivers are often at a higher risk for mental health illness than the general population. This is because the role of caregiving is an extremely challenging one. It’s often a source of chronic and prolonged stress and caring for yourself may take a back seat for the duration, ultimately compounding the problem. While caregiving is often reported as a rewarding and purposeful experience, it’s also one of the most difficult experiences a person can face. Today we’re going to discuss what factors increase your risk of stress and depression, how to identify signs of worsening mental health or depression in yourself or a caregiver in your life, and steps you can take to prevent it from creeping in.
Note: If you’re experiencing an emergency situation, please contact the Orange County Crisis/Suicide Prevention Hotline (877) 7-CRISIS or (877) 727-4747. IN THE EVENT OF A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY, PLEASE CALL 911.
Elevated Mental Health Decline Risk Factors
Caregiving will look a little different in every situation. No two caregiving recipients are the same, and no two caregivers approach care in the same way. So while this list includes risk factors that increase your risk of stress and depression, it is in no way exhaustive - you may be at high risk without them. Be sure to also review the signs of declining mental health (later in the article) to identify it in yourself or others.
You are at a higher risk for mental health illness as a caregiver if:
There is a chronic and progressive illness in a loved one under your care.
Your care recipient shows abnormal, erratic, or disruptive behavior.
Your care recipient has a cognitive impairment.
They are under your care for a long period of time.
The care recipient is your spouse.
Your care recipient shows functional and/or physical deficits.
You’re caring for someone with a form of dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease).
Signs of Worsening Mental Health or Depression
Mental health declines happen over a period of time and get progressively worse. The signs of decline are often subtle and when you’re focused on providing care to another, concerns about yourself are too easily swept aside.
Here are signs that you should invest time in your mental health and/or seek professional help:
You are avoiding the things you enjoy out of guilt.
Sleep has become a struggle.
When you do sleep, it’s full of nightmares or stressful worries about your loved one.
You frequently feel your heart racing or beating out of your chest.
It’s been tough to eat or get an appetite.
Deep feelings of exhaustion have settled in that no amount of sleep seems to cure.
You’re struggling to remember details - details about conversations or other aspects of your life.
A feeling of anxiousness sweeps over you when discussing diagnosis, care plans, treatments, or doctor visits.
You have an anxiety attack if you feel you’ve forgotten something or otherwise made a mistake in care.
You’re no longer interested in things you once enjoyed.
You’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, worry, feelings of impending doom, and overwhelm.
Remember, your health is just as important to the quality of care for your loved one as theirs is. Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s necessary. Needing help isn’t a sign of weakness, the ability to ask for it contrarily shows strength. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone else, it’s important to speak up and talk to a doctor.
Steps You Can Take to Prevent Mental Health Decline as a Caregiver
While there is no changing the fact that caregiving is a difficult and life-altering situation, it is possible to create a better and healthier balance.
If you’re experiencing stress, overwhelm, or anxious thoughts, here are some things that are proven to help reduce these feelings:
Keep physically fit. Do a yoga video on YouTube, go for a walk around the neighborhood, take a dance class, etc. Any type of consistent exercise will do wonders for your mental fitness as well. Pick an exercise you find enjoyable and do it consistently no matter how you squeeze it into your week.
Eat healthy well-balanced meals. Try not to skip meals. Instead, schedule your meals consistently throughout the day. Skipping meals leads to energy crashes and spikes, which can impact your mental health long-term.
Sleep. There’s a near-certain causal link between sleep deprivation and many of our societal health problems such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and more. This is why a consistent sleep schedule may be the key to mental clarity, health, longevity, and alertness. Check out this podcast episode by Matthew Walker, the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Human Sleep Science, (or his book, “Why We Sleep”) for more information on the subject.
Take deep breaths. Inhale for 3-5 seconds, hold it for 3-5 seconds, and release it for 3-5 seconds. Repeat this several times until you start to feel relaxed.
Try to identify your triggers. By keeping a log throughout the day of how you feel and how you respond to situations, you’ll be able to look at it as data - something to approach with curiosity instead of judgment. Are there patterns? Maybe skipping breakfast leads to overwhelm that night. Or maybe grocery store trips trigger anger. This will help you prioritize where you should adjust or ask for help.
Caregivers are more likely to be stressed, anxious, or depressed than the general populace but we want you to know that you’re not alone. It’s not selfish, but instead necessary, to take care of yourself too.
For further reading and resources, we invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here. You are also welcome to give us a call at 800-543-8312 to find out more about how we can support you in your caregiving journey.
Disclaimer: This article is for information and education purposes only, it is not intended to be used for diagnosis. Please consult a professional if you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or mental health illness.
Note: If you’re experiencing an emergency situation, please contact the Orange County Crisis/Suicide Prevention Hotline (877) 7-CRISIS or (877) 727-4747.
IN THE EVENT OF A LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCY, PLEASE CALL 911.