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The pandemic has massively affected people’s mental health. But a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms what many of us see and feel in our own lives: the effects have been especially devastating on parents and unpaid adult carers.
Two-thirds of respondents who identified themselves as unpaid caregivers said they had had psychological problems such as symptoms of anxiety or depression or thoughts of suicide during the pandemic.
Only a third of people with no care responsibilities reported the same symptoms.
Of the more than 10,000 survey participants, more than 40% identified themselves as unpaid nurses.
“What is striking here is how widespread unpaid care duties are in the population and how much these duties are burdened and burdened,” says Shantha Rajaratnam, co-author of the study and psychologist at the Turner Institute of Brain and Mental Health at Monash University in Australia .
The study also found that people who look after both children under 18 and adults – many of whom belong to the sandwich generation – do worst, with 85% of that group having negative mental health symptoms.
“It’s an extremely important study,” says psychologist Dolores Gallagher-Thompson, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, who researched family carers and their challenges.
The study is the first to document the problems caregivers faced during COVID-19, notes, underscoring “the importance of caregiver attention, caregiver mental health” and the need for education and resources to help them better to support.
The contrast between carers and others is strong
The study, part of ongoing research by the COVID-19 Outbreak Public Evaluation (COPE) Initiative, is based on surveys conducted in December 2020 and February-March 2021.
More than half of those who identified themselves as caregivers said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression, or disorders such as PTSD related to the stress and trauma of COVID-19.
Many relatives said they had thought about suicide. Almost 40% reported having passive thoughts of suicide, which means they “wished they had gone to bed and not woken up,” says study co-author Mark Czeisler, a PhD student at Monash University and a research intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
And more than 30% had seriously considered killing themselves – about five times as many non-carers as the study found.
In general, the mental health effects have been more severe in people caring for both children and adults. Half of this group said they had thought seriously about suicide in the past month.
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges for caregivers
Even before the pandemic, being an unpaid caregiver was stressful and associated with a higher risk of mental illness, says Gallagher-Thompson. The COVID-19 pandemic has made things even more difficult.
For example, the pandemic has deprived caregivers of many formal and informal sources of support.
That was with Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite is the case. She is a Boston-based child psychiatrist and lives with her husband, mother, husband’s father, and two sons, 4 and 6 years old.
Before the pandemic, her father-in-law, who had dementia, attended a day program for seniors with cognitive decline. Her mother, a breast and lung cancer survivor, went to physical therapy, doctor’s appointments, and friends twice a week.
When the pandemic broke out, they lost those services and social support – at the same time, Christian-Brathwaite and her husband started working from home while taking care of their sons and parents.
Home life became much more complicated. Her sons developed behavioral problems with the transitions and pressures of the pandemic. Her mother struggled with chronic pain and was hospitalized during the pandemic. And there were days when her father-in-law was confused, disoriented, or aggressive.
“On many days I ran around nervously waiting for something to happen because our entire setup was so fragile and vulnerable,” says Christian-Brathwaite. “It was exhausting.”
And her mental health has suffered. “I was certainly dealing with insomnia,” she says. “I was quick-tempered. I was more irritable. I didn’t have the same tolerance for things.”
More support needed to help nurses deal with this
The new study underscores the extent to which unpaid caregivers struggled during the pandemic, Gallagher-Thompson says.
“There are some serious issues here that shouldn’t be ignored,” she says.
Still, caregivers are often ignored by the healthcare system that focuses only on the patient.
“Family members are rarely asked, ‘How does this affect you? What is difficult? How can we help you? How can we help you fulfill your role, your tasks, your responsibilities? ‘”Says Gallagher-Thompson.
As the new study shows, support can make a big difference – respondents who could rely on others to provide care had a lower incidence of mental health symptoms.
It is therefore important to train and support caregivers. For example, doctors can start screening their patients’ caregivers for mental health symptoms and allocating more resources to those who need them, Gallagher-Thompson says.
Christian-Brathwaite hopes the new study will help doctors understand that caregivers are just as important in treating patients.
“We really need to take a step back and look at the village around them because our patients cannot be successful without family support,” she says.