Mental health carers - an unseen majority

Carers are often presented as a hidden healthcare workforce - something that is finally being recognised by the new GP carers' champions.

This is a tried and tested way of raising the profile of an issue within primary care, and is something that has been successfully done with GP specialists in mental health.

However, describing carers as a hidden healthcare workforce creates an image of an army of people providing physical care. This is only a partial picture. Carers Together supports large numbers of people and we were quite surprised to find the most likely reason that the cared for person needs care is mental health.

A carer isn’t just someone who performs the physical task of looking after someone - they also shoulder the burden of feeling emotionally responsible for that person. We can probably all empathise with those who have to get up and down throughout the night taking someone to the toilet, but it is perhaps more difficult to imagine the impact of years of worrying about a person. 

Imagine spending every evening worrying if someone is going to come home. Half anticipating a call from the police or the health service telling you your son, daughter or husband has tried to take their life. Imagine being told by a loved one that they feel unsafe to be around people; that they are too frightened to go outside; that their food is being poisoned or that they know that you hate them. Not every mental health issue produces these extreme scenarios but they do create specific difficulties for the carer.

Why? If someone has a physical problem the carer feels that the clinical treatment of that problem is the responsibility of a doctor. While the Government suggests this is true of mental health issues too, a carer’s experience can be very different. Mental health is still a Cinderella service, support is extremely varied and all too often comes nowhere near meeting the needs of those with mental health needs.

Unlike physical care, people, especially parents, feel responsible for the mental health of those they care for. The belief that if you could just do the right thing, the cared for person would be alright, can be psychologically crippling.

In addition if the central issue is mental health, life can be as chaotic for the carer as it is for the person suffering the condition.

Despite the emotional hardship there is little recognition of what carers for people with mental health issues are facing. Even within carers groups the difficulty in articulating the daily grind of looking after someone with a mental health issue means that there is a doubt about being a ‘real carer’. Our experience has told us that carers for those with mental health issues are crying out for help. Let’s hope they get it.

Find out about the support we offer to carers - both face-to-face and online - through our Carers Together project.