Does caring cause depression - or is it the lack of support?

Carers have hit the headlines over the last few months. Media, politicians and the general public are beginning to recognise the difficult situation many carers find themselves in.

Having met a lot of different carers over the last few months I know that many of them will welcome this recognition, especially when there is a lot of negative comment about those living off State benefits. ‘Scrounger’ is hard to hear when you are living on £59.75 pounds a week and providing 24 hour care. We all know that ‘scrounger’ doesn’t apply to carers, but the rhetoric associated with changes in the benefits system is creating a stigma for anyone that receives financial support from the state. Coverage that highlights the realities of caring is therefore much needed and welcomed.  

Much of the recent coverage around carers has focused on a Royal College of General Practitioners [RCGP] report that suggests carers are more likely to get depression.  At any given time 40% of carers are at risk of becoming depressed due to their caring role. Most of the report’s suggestions are quite sensible: improve GP access by allocating routine appointments and vaccinations at convenient times for carers; appoint a carers' "champion" in all GP surgeries; maintain a carers' register within the GP practice; and carry out audits to measure improvements in carer support. 

However, the report also recommends that all carers should be screened for depression. I am sure this is well intentioned, but it also may create the dystopian scenario where all carers are tested to see if they are mentally unwell, and then offered medical treatment to ‘cure’ them.  At our Carers Together project in Birmingham, we work really hard to strike a balance between understanding what a strain caring can create and recognising that carers are not a patient group. Support, information and services are welcome, but we have to be careful not to pathologise carers. 

The RCGP report suggests that carers feel a sense of shame in coming forward and asking for support. I’m sure this is true, but perhaps we are not sending out the right signals. Many of the carers I speak to suggest the support isn’t out there when you ask for it. If you have to fight hard for every inch of financial and practical help you get, and people who receive support from the state are tarred with  the tag  ‘scroungers’,  it’s not surprising that a reluctance is created around coming forward. 

The questions we have to ask ourselves are: is it the caring role that creates the depression, or is it the lack of support? And, are we even talking about depression or is it just an appropriate emotional response to a difficult situation? I hope this can be thought about because the answer to the problem of how to improve carers’ wellbeing may not be anti-depressants and cognitive therapy, but good quality care services, financial help and on-going emotional support when it’s needed and asked for.