Caregivers risk depression and burnout looking after a loved one – how to practise self-care and when to seek help
- When his daughter needed home care, Singaporean Gabriel Chan didn’t know what to do and felt ‘confused, anxious and frustrated’, as many carers do
- Amid the pandemic, carers are missing their support network, adding to the risk of burnout. They need to set boundaries and practise self-care, therapists say
Gabriel Chan’s life changed three years ago, when his teenage daughter Kristyn went from outgoing and chatty to sad and withdrawn.
Concerned for her well-being, Chan went into semi-retirement in 2019, using the time to bond with his youngest daughter. His wife, too, stayed by Kristyn’s side during difficult moments to offer care and reassurance.
“We almost lost her, which hurt a lot,” says Chan. While his daughter was in hospital, she saw a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
“After that harrowing night, our daughter began receiving expert care. She was also prescribed new medication and taught coping skills.”
Today, Kristyn has turned a corner. She attends school online, has a part-time job, and is excited about starting an undergraduate programme in Australia in 2021. The therapists have recommended reducing her medication and counselling sessions.
Chan and his wife are thankful. “I didn’t know what to do or whom to turn to. I was confused, anxious and frustrated and often asked myself, ‘Why me?’ My wife and I kept our feelings to ourselves because we didn’t think our friends and relatives would understand.”
“Carers might also feel hopeless because recovering from a mental health condition can sometimes take years,” says Eirliani Abdul Rahman, head of operations and programmes at Caregivers Alliance (CAL), a non-profit organisation in Singapore that cares for people with mental health issues.
Carers may also need to leave paid jobs to be at home full time if their patient’s condition deteriorates. Abdul Rahman says that pandemic-related restrictions deny carers access to their usual support network. Main carers are finding that secondary carers are no longer available, leaving them to take on all the tasks alone. Burnout is a real risk for carers who are already exhausted, frustrated and stressed out, and who might feel guilty for not doing enough.
“Emotionally, burnout may show up as compassion or empathy fatigue – when carers have no time to recharge or care for themselves, their capacity to care and feel for others erodes,” Han explains. “Carers may also feel irritated or embittered about the situation they’re in and then feel guilty about having these emotions.”
Han says it’s important for carers to establish healthy boundaries to protect their mental and physical well-being. These boundaries can help prevent burnout, decrease the fear of being remiss or negligent, and reduce feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
CAL runs a carer training programme that emphasises the importance of taking care of themselves. Abdul Rahman says this could include going for walks, exercising, spending time on a hobby or any activity that offers respite or an outlet for recreation.
Chan enrolled in CAL’s programme in September 2019. It helped him appreciate the need for self-care. When he feels drained, he opens up to his wife. And when he needs strength he turns to his religion and prays with his family. Long walks and regular workouts also bring balance to his life and help him sleep better.
The training gave him a better understanding of mental health – and renewed his hope of recovery for people with mental health illnesses. It helped him realise that his family isn’t alone in their experience and that there is support and resources available. It has taught him to have faith and to focus on the positive.
“There will be bad days, but they will pass so don’t dwell on them,” he explains. “Enjoy the good days and live for the moment. Celebrate the small improvements and know that your loved one understands that you’re doing your best to support them. In our case, staying hopeful keeps us going as our daughter fights the negative thoughts.”
Kristyn has thrived on her parents’ dedicated care and acknowledges that their positive attitude is infectious. “They’ve always been my pillars of support, but during my recovery they were the ones who truly made me believe that I would get better. This faith encourages me to keep me going every day.”