MENTAL HEALTH Caring – A Mental Minefield

Sara Challice spent over a decade caring for her disabled husband and has now written a book, reflecting on her own experiences, advising other unpaid carers on how to care for themselves. Here, a summary of Sara’s advice can help carers, both unpaid and professional, to also care for themselves.

Caring for a loved one may not sound like much, but there are many reasons why three quarters of carers fall mentally unwell whilst caring for a friend or relative.

I always looked aſter my health but, during the 13 years of caring for my husband, aſter he became disabled from a brain tumour, I fell both mentally and physically ill a number of times due to the continuous stress of looking aſter him.

So, why is caring oſten so stressful? I would describe it like this – although it was Neal who had the brain tumour, I woke up to brain cancer for over a decade. The tumour may not have been in my head, but it certainly affected every area of my life. And, as like many carers, I had made myself solely responsible for my loved one’s life. The years of pressure would undoubtedly take its toll.

There was also the grieving process.

As with many carers and their loved ones, we both knew that we had limited time together. For years, I grieved for him before he was gone. And, like so many of us who care, I was empathic and grieved with him for what he had lost.

Carers go through a great deal, mentally and emotionally, and even the closest of compassionate friends and family will not fully understand what we are enduring.

There are also many other elements to a carer’s role, which can add to the pressure. When a loved one falls ill and needs our support, we want to give them our best to ensure their best outcome. But, if you continue to do this for a period of time, you can quickly become institutionalised. Your focus is always on another and rarely on yourself. So, when you start to feel mentally exhausted and in need of a break, to focus your attention back onto yourself can feel awkward, with rising feelings of guilt. Your loved one needs you, so why are you thinking of yourself?

But self-care is not selfish. It is crucial for our own health and wellbeing. Many carers even cancel their own medical appointments, because they do not deem their own health as important. The priority is always the cared for.

Even when offered breaks, carers turn respite down. I know of those who have, including myself, turned desperately-needed respite down due to feeling guilty. How can you enjoy yourself, knowing your loved one is poorly and oſten being cared for by strangers?

On top of all this, the carer is usually the one fighting for the needs of their loved one, by dealing with social services, in an attempt to receive inadequate benefits, plus pushing to procure the best treatment for their loved one’s survival.

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Carers are oſten the voice and ears of the cared for, fighting for their rights and survival.

No wonder so many carers are running on empty, but we need to remain well, not only for ourselves, but so that we can still be there for our loved ones.

So, what do carers need to do to safeguard their mental health?

Firstly, carers need clarity. Oſten, they are so busy firefighting for the needs of others that their attention is rarely on themselves. In saying yes to everyone else, carers can quickly become depleted. What do they really have to do and not have to do? What are the negotiables and non-negotiables? Pushing back on what is usually expected of them, can give them a bit of breathing space and time to focus on their own self-care.

Carers also oſten fall mentally unwell because they suppress their emotions. They feel they have to put on a brave face to be strong for their loved ones. But, in reality, they need to be more honest and open with others and ask for help. Too many struggle on alone, accepting their plight. But if they accept that this is how it will always be, then they’re right. Being honest with themselves and those around them will start to create a positive shiſt to helping them receive more support.

Also, regular breaks are imperative for a carer’s wellbeing. Having time out every day, even for minutes between chores, to have downtime, will help them to recoup. Carers also need longer breaks – a day, a weekend, or a week’s respite. This vital time can not only help carers rest and revive, but it can help them to see the wood for the trees. In getting away from their caring role at home, they can then recognise and assess their situation. They determine what they need to do, which is in their best interest, as well as for others, for the long-term.

Finally, a carer’s support network is key to ensuring their mental health. Not all friends and family will be supportive. Some may even judge and put on an already exasperated carer. Knowing who has their best interest at heart during these challenging times will help them to make the right choices, not only for themselves, but also for their loved ones.

Oſten, making sometimes the smallest of decisions can boost a carer's mental health for the better. Because life is not about abstaining and enduring, it is still about enjoying life, especially whilst caring. This will then help lead carers to better mental and physical health.

Sara’s book, ‘Who Cares? How to care for yourself whilst caring for a loved one’, will be available from Hammersmith Health Books in April 2020.

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