“You are a better carer when you look after yourself a bit, because who will look after the unwell person if you become unwell?”
You may be looking after a relative or friend on a regular basis because you care about them, or you believe it is your duty or what's expected of you. Perhaps you spend a few hours every day helping a person with a mental health condition get to medical appointments or social outings, or shopping. Or maybe you manage all aspects of their lives 24/7.
Whatever the reasons or level of care, you may not actually identify yourself as a carer. You may not even be aware of your need for self-care, or that there are support services and resources you can access.
While caring for someone can be rewarding, it can also be emotionally and physically challenging. If you are a long-term carer, or caring for an elderly person or someone with a permanent disability or terminal illness, you may feel lonely or isolated.
You may feel that your needs are not important compared to those you are caring for. You may not even feel entitled to seek or get help. But, as the pre-take-off flight safety instructions say: If you put your own oxygen mask on first, you're then able to help others.
Recognising the crucial role that you play as a carer is an important first step. Take a look at the resources below to help you get started. We also have more information about how to support someone.
A closer look
There are around 2.8 million informal carers in Australia
As of 2015, there are around 240,000 mental health carers in the country. Many of them provide a significant number of hours of unpaid support. Carers are recognised as making a valuable contribution to the people they care for and to the social and economic aspects of the community. It would cost around 13.2 billion dollars to replace informal mental health care with formal support services. (Source)
Often several family members will care for the person with a mental illness
There may be formally appointed roles within the family or they may just evolve naturally. Each member may have particular ways they help. Maybe they give financial or emotional support, or help the person feel less lonely or more able to solve problems. Maybe they help them remember to do things or notice their achievements. Perhaps they give them practical help with their self-care, transport or shopping, or they may help them deal with health and community services. This can work well if you’re a close-knit family. However, if you're unable to reach out to other family because of estrangement or disconnection, it can take a much bigger toll on your wellbeing. (Source)
Sometimes the last person a carer thinks about is themselves
A programme of self-care is crucial for carers of people with permanent disability, terminal illness or the elderly, so they are able to sustain their own health and continue to give care. Self-care includes ensuring the carer is able to attend to their own physical, social, and emotional needs. This might mean getting enough sleep, a balanced diet, exercise, rest, and maintaining connections with other people or their wider community. (Source)
Consider connecting with a carer support group in your community
One way to help cope with the challenges you might feel as a carer is to join a carer support group. It may be a general group or a one specifically for carers of particular illnesses or disabilities. It can be good to talk to others who have shared similar experiences. You may also discover new information, join in new activities, or go on relaxing outings. (Source)
Nearly a fifth of carers are elderly
According to a survey run by ABS in 2009, 20% of carers were 65 years or older, and the main person they cared for was a partner. However, 9% of these cared for an adult child. Three-quarters of older carers felt their wellbeing had not changed. However, about one-quarter felt worried and depressed because of their caring role. One-fifth of the carers actually had a disability themselves. (Source 1) (Source 2)
For people who are new to caring, it's important to educate yourself on the illness itself as much as you can. Try and join a group of carers so that you know you’re not alone.
I joined a schizophrenia support group close to where I live. I actually became the group leader for five years and found it to be very helpful. I have made good friends with some of the other carers and they are very supportive.
My advice for any family is to understand that the person isn’t doing it on purpose. Hang in there because it will get better. Get a diagnosis and find a good psychiatrist. Hang in there because with good treatment, things will get better.
My family has found different ways to cope with my daughter's mental illness. My son has joined the university gym and my husband’s taken up bike riding as a way of releasing tension.
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).