I was a carer the year before I came to Oxford. My mum had a mixture of physical and mental health problems, and I looked after her. There was not a moment that I didn’t want to do it, but there were many moments when it felt endless, when I felt trapped and completely lost. My life was managing someone else’s. For far too long, I had no help; it was just me, my brother and my mum. It was shocking how difficult it was to get help simply because my mum’s illness was deemed a mental health one. And while the biggest fight we have at the minute is obviously making sure mental health problems are taken seriously, we should also recognise the impact of failing to do so on carers. So many problems faced by carers are exacerbated when mental health is involved; it’s impossible to deny the link.
One of the biggest barriers to helping carers is the failure to acknowledge these people as carers. As a mother, father, son, daughter or friend, for example, we rarely think of ourselves as carers. A carer provides help for someone on a regular basis, either because they cannot provide it themselves or need some assistance. We are not paid, and we save the government £119 million per year. Anyone of us can be a carer, and it’s often a role we find ourselves in without much control over the situation. This problem is surely exacerbated by the failure to treat mental illness as ‘real’, or deserving of help. If we don’t believe mental illness is deserving of our care, attention or support, then the likelihood of even thinking carers exist in relation to them is low. Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental health prevents many sufferers seeking help and it is often only through the involvement of outside professionals or support services that a carer even recognises the role they are in.
There are a number of effects that being a carer can have. Often we can be caring for someone alongside study or work – though not always – and this can cause stress and worry. It is hard to overstate the impact it can have on us when we feel we have two lives to manage and balance. This balance is incredibly hard to strike, and the feelings of guilt when we take time out for ourselves can often lead to self-isolation. Young carers often find it very hard to relate to their peers once there is so much more in their life; I often felt like I had two different personas and after a while it became so very hard to keep them separate. You become aware that your school friends don’t want to hear about the problems you’re having with GP appointments, or the side effects of certain medication on the person you’re caring for. But when this is all your life seems to be, it makes engaging with your peers almost impossible. And when our life seems to be solely focused on helping one other person, however hard we try sometimes we can’t stop the anger and frustration. The inner turmoil between desperately wanting to care for someone but feeling resentful that they have put you in a position where you need to do this can be inescapable, and it is damaging. One of the biggest problems with all of these things is when they go unnoticed: in a painfully ironic turn of events, they can often result in the carer developing mental health problems. It is believed that around 40 per cent of the UK’s seven million carers suffer from depression, and other mental illnesses. I am in that 40 per cent, but for a long time I didn’t realise anyone else was.
Seeking help isn’t easy either. Admitting to a professional that our role as a carer is having a damaging impact on our mental health can involve exposing the conditions of the person we are caring for, which can be a real concern to a carer not wishing to break trust or confidentiality. It’s very easy to say “take a break”, but it’s also very ignorant. For some of us, our roles are almost 24/7 – the suggestion that we “pop out for a coffee with friends” can feel so impossibly far away that it’s like a taunt. Carers of those with physical health problems as well as mental health problems express great difficulty in securing extra help which enables them to have a break; four in ten carers say they have not had a day off in over a year. When we live in a country which grossly underfunds mental health (in some parts of the country less than 10 per cent of funding is spent on it), obtaining support for a carer can feel like a fight not worth the struggle.
I’m not claiming that this is the biggest problem in the treatment of mental health in this country; it’s clear that if we do deal more successfully with the stigma we will be indirectly making a huge positive impact on carers. But the issues involved with mental health are undeniably multi-faceted and the impact on and treatment of carers is one such facet. We can’t allow the battle for better mental health support to leave behind some of those who need exactly this help. If you are a carer, please seek support. If you know a carer, please encourage or help them to. You will be helping more than you know.
Almost 7 million in the country – 1 in 10 of us are carers
3 in 5 people will be carers at some point
1.5m people care for someone w/mental health problem
1 in 40 – mental health carer
Over 50,000 children and young people care for someone with a mental health problem
58% carers female; 42% male
84% of carers have GP who knows of caring role – 71% of these said nothing changed as a result
75% carers say it’s hard to maintain relationships as people do not understand the impact
49% think society does not think about them at all