Who cares for the carers?

November 30, 2000

New research shows carers at risk of mental illness themselves

According to a new study from the Institute of Psychiatry, schizophrenia affects the mental and physical well being of caregivers from its earliest stages. The findings, published in the December issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, are being used by the researchers to develop new strategies to support carers to prevent them developing further mental illnesses.

Schizophrenia is a severe and often enduring mental illness. Since the Community Care Act in 1990, many people with schizophrenia are no longer in institutions but are cared for at home by their families. Previous research shows, however, that the stress of caring for someone with a severe mental illness can cause mental health problems in the carers themselves.

The current study investigated how the first stages of psychosis, usually the earliest symptom of schizophrenia, affected carers. The caregivers (mainly mothers of the person experiencing psychosis) were often very distressed by the symptoms even though many admitted that caring could also be rewarding.

Carers found that difficult behaviours - such as moodiness, suspiciousness or embarrassing appearance - and social withdrawal on the part of their relative was hardest to cope with. Many also had difficulties getting the help they needed from mental health services.

At this early stage of their relative's illness, researchers found that carers were no more likely than the general population to suffer from mental illness. But those carers who lived with their ill relative visited their GPs more than usual, suggesting that even in its earliest stages, psychosis can be stressful for carers and that if unchecked, it can develop into more serious illness.

Dr Tonmoy Sharma, who led the study, believes the study emphasises the importance of providing support and care for the carers. "The basic question is, who cares for the carers? This study shows that even in the earliest stages, caregivers become very stressed as a result of living with someone suffering from psychosis.

"The NHS Plan now recognizes that carers should be given the support they deserve, especially because they may be at risk of illness themselves. We believe that with that effective support, it may be possible to prevent the mental illnesses in carers."

Institute of Psychiatry

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