Caring for someone with mental health problems has unique challenges. Mental health problems vary greatly in severity and causes. Mild problems are common and the person can be helped through understanding and support. More severe mental health disorders, such as major depression, are less common and pose more challenges.
Communication can be a struggle for many people with a mental health disorder. Some people don't have the motivation to communicate, while others lack the confidence to say what they really want. Some people experience hallucinations, which can affect how and when they communicate.
Often, people with mental health problems feel cut off from other people, including family, friends and neighbours.
To help the person you care for communicate, give them enough time to make themselves heard and let them know that you accept them and their disorder.
Let them express themselves without interrupting or offering your opinion. Encourage and reassure them if they get upset or appear to be struggling with their emotions.
You may have known the person you care for before they had their mental health disorder. It's important to remember that they may be going through a period of mental distress.
Are you a carer or helping someone out?
Carers are everyday people who provide unpaid and ongoing care and support to someone they know who has a disability, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness or who is frail.
You can find practical information and useful resources for carers on the Carer Gateway website. You can also learn more about carers' support and services in your state or territory through Carers Australia.
If you care for someone who appears to have a mental health problem, they may not have sought medical advice or they may be struggling to get a specific diagnosis. Do not diagnose mental health problems yourself. A mental health diagnosis will usually be made by a GP, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Getting a definite diagnosis of a mental health disorder can be difficult because there are no definitive physical tests. A diagnosis will usually be made by discussing symptoms and taking a medical history. As a carer, you may also be asked to describe your experience of their illness.
The local doctor is an important contact for you. They can create a mental health care plan for the person and this will be a vital early step.
If the person you care for doesn't agree with their initial diagnosis or the treatment plan, they can get a second opinion.
People who care for someone with a mental health disorder may find that some healthcare professionals are reluctant or unwilling to share information with them. This can be frustrating because often the carer has the fullest picture of the person's condition. However, mental healthcare professionals are legally bound to protect the confidentiality of their patients, so they may be unable, rather than unwilling, to talk about care needs.
If this is an issue for you, ask for the consent of the person you care for to discuss their care needs with their treating health professionals. If the person does not wish to happen, this is their right — they are entitled to confidentiality. If given, this consent should be made clear on any care plans or documentation relating to their care, and any changes to this consent should be clearly noted.
Mental healthcare professionals may not be able to share certain personal details about the mental health of the person you care for, but this doesn't mean that they should not listen to your perspective.
You'll need to have a conversation with the person you care for about what you are and what you are not prepared to do. You may need to be firm with your decision. If you feel you're doing too much, see if someone else can share the caring responsibility with you.
If the person you care for is feeling particularly isolated or desperate, they may say that they want to kill themselves, or they may attempt to do so.
Mentioning suicide may not be the same thing as wanting to end their life. They may say that they feel overwhelmed and want it to end, or talk about feeling useless or that their life is pointless. It's important to acknowledge such statements rather than being dismissive or making light of them.
You may be worried about your safety or the safety of the person you care for or someone else. In this case, consider getting an urgent assessment for the person you care for, as well as a carer's assessment for yourself.
This may be carried out by a community mental health team already known to you, or your local hospital.
If you believe that you or anyone else is in immediate danger, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance to take them to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. Police may also be involved if the person is agitated, aggressive or a risk to themselves or others.
The person you care for should be consulted at every stage of treatment and can only have treatment or tests with their consent, unless they're detained under the Mental Health Act relevant to the state or territory you live in.
Effective carer checklist
An effective carer check list may look like this:
- Ensure the condition is properly diagnosed.
- Know and establish the professional support network.
- Access the relevant information about how best to behave and what to expect.
- Look after yourself and know where to find support for your needs.
- Know the danger signals and how to respond.
Looking after yourself
The person you care for may become increasingly reliant on you. It's common for people with a mental health diagnosis, such as depression, to become insular and lose interest in social activities. You may be one of the few people they have contact with.
This means that you might need extra support. Although it's important to support the person you care for, it's also essential to look after your own mental health. It's important to maintain your own social activities. If you start to feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, it may be time to speak to your doctor about how your caring role is affecting your emotional and mental health.
Support and resources
If you're struggling to care for someone with a mental health problem, it may help to talk to other carers in a similar situation to you. Some local carers' organisations hold separate meetings for carers of people with mental health problems. The local mental health team should be able to give you contact details.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists has a practical guide to caring for someone with a mental illness.
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Last reviewed: August 2020