Depression – The price of caregiving

Published 20 October 2016

Parents caring for teenagers with a mental illness suffer more depressive symptoms than the general public, according to research by the University of New England.

Dr Navjot Bhullar from the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences says the findings suggest that parents of young people with mental illness reported high levels of depression because of the restrictions imposed by their role.

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“There is emerging evidence that caring for a young person with a mental illness may have a greater impact on the carer than other forms of caregiving,” Dr Bhullar said.

“In particular, the stigma of mental illness and social isolation associated with caring for someone with mental illness appears to add to the burden.”

Dr Bhullar collaborated with Professor Debra Rickwood at University of Canberra & Chief Scientific Advisor at Headspace National Office for this study which is unique as it examined three types of restriction on a caregiver: their daily routine, personal control and social activities.

The study sample included 200 participants with an average age of 45 who care for young people aged 12 to 25. Eight-five percent of the participants were women.

“A meta-analysis of 34 studies examining the role of activity restriction in caregivers of medical patients found it negatively impacts the health of the caregiver by undermining their ability to maintain adequate levels of participation in normal routine activities.”

Dr Bhullar said this study also looked at personal control and social connections.

“The responsibilities of caregiving can interfere with normal social and recreational activities leading to increased depressive symptoms among caregivers. Studies have shown that social disengagement, poor social connections and decreased social activities are associated with negative mental health outcomes.”

Dr Bhullar and Professor Rickwood say that the mechanism through which caregiving burden seems to be associated with depressive symptoms in carers is due to restricted participation in these three types of activities.

Researchers also identified a carer typology labelled as Sufferers, Battlers and Resilient, with each group reporting differential levels of caregiving burden and activity restriction. This typology may prove to be beneficial for clinicians to develop effective personalised prevention strategies targeted at each carer grouping.

There is further scope for the study to examine the types and severity of mental illnesses experienced by the young people being cared for.

“Despite the limitations of the current study, the results offer a preliminary look at the potential role of restriction of activities in daily routine, personal control and social domain in explaining the role of parental caregiving in parent-carer depression.

These findings should also be able to provide greater help for interventions to support parent-carers to help them maintain important activities in their life.

Intervention options may help address these specific problems.

The paper Taking care of teenagers, Taking care of me: Profiling parental caregiving burden and activity restriction in a sample of Australian parents has been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing.