Mention the word “carer” and you get a picture of someone strong and healthy, helping someone frail. But these images can be misleading.
It is estimated that 2.6 million Australians are carers. With one in five Australians experiencing mental illness in any year, it is likely that many of those carers are providing practical day-to-day and emotional support for people experiencing mental illness.
This week is National Carers Week. It also happens to be Mental Health Month in NSW, so it is an ideal time to put the spotlight on the vital role played by people who love and support people living with a mental illness.
It is also a chance to start having a real conversation about the well-being of carers and the risk of mental ill-health that the caring role can bring.
The practical, physical, economic and emotional demands of supporting a loved one with a mental illness (any illness, for that matter) can be enormous. But to date, most of our national discussions about carers have focused on their right to be involved in service delivery.
This is indeed an important step in the right direction, but there is more we can, and should, be doing.
Earlier this year, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health released a breakthrough report, “Supporting Those Who Care”, which showed the impact that the caring role can have on those who live with or support someone experiencing depression.
This national report, based on data collected through the roll out of the Partners in Depression program, showed that carers reported poor physical and mental health, challenges with their relationships and reduced participation in social activities.
Even more worrying, people who entered the program had significant levels of psychological distress, levels that were much higher than the general population and which suggested an immediate risk of mental ill-health.
So if carers are at risk of mental ill-health themselves, and if strategies can be implemented to address this risk, why is there no national investment in prevention approaches?
We know from research that investing in the promotion of mental health and well-being, and the prevention of mental ill-health, leads to a more efficient use of mental health resources and has a flow-on effect to a range of other health and community outcomes.
The problem is that the promotion of mental health and well-being and the prevention of mental ill-health are often seen as longer-term strategies, so estimating the immediate return on investment can be difficult.
But programs addressing an immediate risk, such as those that target the information and support needs of carers, can show immediate as well as long-term benefits.
People who love, live with and care for someone with a mental illness, including those with depression, need timely and equitable access to interventions that enhance their well-being and prevent the onset of mental ill-health.
Let’s work on a national agenda that recognises the rights of those who care for someone with a mental illness not to have their own mental health and well-being compromised because of the vital caring role they play.
We have national policies, which in theory recognise the importance of prevention approaches. We also have national policies that recognise the important role carers play in mental health.
What we do not have, however, is a clear strategy for aligning these two priorities so we can achieve immediate and sustained benefits to prevent the onset of mental ill-health among the 2.6 million carers in Australia.
We know that prevention-focused programs, such as our Partners in Depression program, make a real difference to the well-being of carers. But without a national funding stream to support these programs, no matter how cost-effective they are, only selected communities, families and workplaces will get access.
We need to shift our focus from a short-term, crisis-focused approach, and instead think about how we build people up and keep them well.
So, in lieu of that national agenda, here is my plea for this week.
If you are a carer, please take time out, even if it’s just for an hour, to nurture your own well-being. Do something you enjoy, spend time with people who lift you up, or do something to relax and recharge.
If you know someone who is a carer, be proactive and do something that you know will support their well-being.
To find out more about our Partners in Depression program, visit partnersindepression.com.au. For more information about carers, visit carersaustralia.com.au.
This article first appeared on Newcastle Herald on 19 October, 2013.