Helen Wiggins is a Carers Development Officer at South West Yorkshire Partnership, NHS Foundation Trust. Helen has 10 years’ experience of being privileged to work with the Carers of adults with Mental Health Problems. She is a wife, mum of 2 daughters and lifelong Huddersfield Town fan. Helen holds a BA Hons in Social Policy from the University of York.
Here, Helen shares her advice to all carers and the importance of looking after themselves.
Having a family member or a loved one with a mental illness can be exhausting. Whilst all carers have an incredibly tough role, the nature of caring for someone with a mental illness brings its own set of unique challenges.
If a loved one is suffering from psychosis, they may not accept that there is anything wrong at all. If a loved one has paranoia, they may not trust or accept a carers help and input. If they have depression, they may not feel worthy of being cared for and so push the carer away. They may refuse to give consent to share information about their diagnosis or treatment leaving you in the dark, bewildered and overwhelmed.
Caring for someone with mental health problems can be unpredictable with many carers feeling unable to plan for the future. That wedding you’ve been invited to next year, that friend’s birthday party or that short anniversary break could all be disrupted depending on the illness presentation that day, that week or even that month.
We know that carers are still less likely to tell their friends, families, neighbours and colleagues if a loved one is suffering from mental illness. This means that carers are less likely to receive the support they need and more likely to feel isolated. We also know that the lives of carers are harder with increased risks of physical and emotional health problems, poorer housing and tougher finances.
We absolutely know then, it is vital for carers to look after themselves and there are some suggestions below:
Carers often struggle with guilt and blame themselves for a loved one developing mental health problems or not recovering fast enough. “If I’d have done this differently…” “If I hadn’t asked them to do this…” are thoughts that nearly every carer has at least once, if not hundreds of times. Learning to accept that as a carer you are not responsible for your loved one becoming unwell and that actually, despite all your best intentions, your love, your patience and your hard work, that you can’t “love someone better” is a hard but invaluable step forward to gaining acceptance.
Being a carer means you sometimes have to deal with some very difficult emotions. The majority of carers at some point in their journey feel so overwhelmed with their situation that they feel like walking away. Most don’t, some do. This doesn’t mean you are giving up on them or no longer care, it is a symptom of the frustration, fear, resentment or helplessness that you are feeling. Whatever happens, it is always better to get some support before reaching this point. Get in touch with your local carers centre, organisation or ask your healthcare professional to point you in the right direction. Having a non-judgemental, confidential and supportive outlet really can make a massive difference to your own wellbeing. They can also help you get educated on the illness and different coping strategies.
Be Confident In Your Interactions
Try to build a relationship with the health professionals involved, remember that you’re both on the same side. Even if they are unable to share information back to you, they are normally happy to receive any help that may inform their assessment or treatment. You may not have been to medical school or have letters after your name but carers become experts through experience. You are often the first to notice relapse indicators, subtle changes in behaviour or even signs of recovery. Your involvement is important and matters.
Look After Yourself
This is so important but also the one thing that so many carers forget to do or fail to prioritise. You are important and your health and wellbeing matter too, even more so if someone else relies on you. Make time to go to the Dr’s for that health condition you’ve been suffering with, get your flu jab and if you need to learn tools to look after yourself then do. Have that bath and an early night. Remember good and healthy sleep is essential to maintaining your wellbeing. Likewise, try to eat the right foods and exercise; it really will help make you feel better.
Take a Break
If your loved one is having a good day or doing ok, make the most of it. Go for a walk, meet with your friend for that coffee you’ve been promising or go watch that football match. If you can, try and schedule in some much needed time-out for yourself or you could even learn a few simple relaxation techniques. Many Local Authorities also have or commission “Carer Break” schemes to help you achieve this.
Have a Conversation
Help to reduce the stigma of mental illness and talk about it. Start a conversation with a trusted friend, colleague or neighbour and you may be pleasantly surprised by their response to you. The more we talk about it, the more mental health is normalised and the better society becomes. You may even gain some invaluable peer support or make new friends along the way.
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