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Many Caregivers with Critically Ill Loved Ones Face Depression

August 23, 2016

Caregiving is a 24/7 responsibility, and one that often causes caregivers to place their own needs secondary to those of their loved ones.

A recent study suggests that caregivers have a significant risk for becoming clinically depressed or of experiencing sub-clinical depressive symptoms.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, involved 280 caregivers of patients who had spent at least a week in the intensive care unit (ICU) on mechanical ventilation – a machine that helps seriously ill patients, or those dealing with a traumatic injury, breathe. Researchers used hospital data and self-administered questionnaires to gather information on each caregiver’s psychological health, quality of life, sense of control over their life and the effect that caregiving had on their regular activities. The evaluation took place during specific intervals: seven days, three months, six months and one year after doctors discharged the patient from the ICU. 

They found that many caregivers reported high levels of depressive symptoms that typically included fatigue, insomnia, withdrawal from social activity and increased irritability. Sixty-seven percent of the caregivers were experiencing depressive symptoms when researchers first began tracking them, and 43 percent still had these symptoms a year later. Over time, these symptoms improved in 84 percent of caregivers, but nearly one in 5 still felt symptoms of depression. Those who fared worse were usually younger, had less support and experienced less control over their life and personal growth. Caregiving also had a significant impact on their external activities. Most caregivers in the study were women (70 percent) and a majority of them (61 percent) were caring for a spouse. 

Conventional wisdom would say that the more serious a patient’s condition, the more impact it would have on the caregiver’s psychological state, but that wasn’t the case in the study. The health status of the person receiving care did not impact the mental state of the caregiver, and this has important implications for anyone interacting with a caregiver.

The study shows that we should place even more emphasis on helping caregivers recognize signs of depression and directing them toward resources that can help them cope with the daily stresses of caregiving and of life in general. Caregivers often are so focused on providing care that they forget to take care of their own well-being, which not only puts their own health at risk, but also jeopardizes the health of their loved one if they can no longer care for them.  

If you are a caregiver facing a huge amount of stress, then don’t hesitate to seek outside help. Lean on family and friends whenever possible. If someone offers help, then accept it. It’s natural to want to take on everything yourself because you may know your loved one better than anyone else, and so can give them the level of care he or she wants and deserves. However, everyone has a breaking point, so when a close friend, relative, colleague or a member of your spiritual congregation offers to share in caregiving tasks, even if just for a day, graciously accept their offer.

There are local support groups, therapists and mental health professionals available if you need someone to talk to who understands the physical and emotional burden you are experiencing. Your loved ones medical team may know of specialized support groups or other places of help for their diagnosis. For example, The Cancer Support Community at UF Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health is a great resource if you have a loved one with cancer, and the Central Florida Brain Injury Support Group can help if there is a traumatic brain injury. The most important thing for caregivers to remember is to get help if you need it. Not doing so puts your health at risk and is a disservice to those who love, care for and depend on you. This is one area where you need to make yourself a priority.