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Hunter Institute Director shares her thoughts for National Carers Week

20 October 2016

This week is National Carers Week, an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the estimated 2.8 million Australians in our community who are carers. It also happens to be Mental Health Month in NSW. So, what better time to stop for a moment to acknowledge the important role of family and friends who provide practical and emotional support for the one in five Australians experiencing mental illness.

Mention the word ‘carer’ and you get a picture of someone strong and healthy, helping someone frail. But these images can be misleading.

In a situation where the illness is not visible, recognising the ‘carer’ is not always immediately obvious. While they are more likely to be viewed as simply a ‘partner’, ‘parent’ or ‘mate’, those who love, live with or support the four million Australians who will experience a problem with their mental health this year, play a vital and significant role.

And sometimes it can be tough.

Whether you are supporting someone with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, drug and alcohol issues or any other mental illness, there are physical and emotional demands that come with it.

As someone once told me so eloquently, “Caring for someone is not a burden, but it is a worry.”

For nearly a decade, the Hunter Institute of Mental Health has had an ongoing commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of carers. It is an issue that is both professional and personal for many of our current and former staff. 

Our journey started with the development of the Partners in Depression program back in 2007, the national roll of that program from 2009 and the subsequent adaptation of the program for mining communities through Partners in Mining.

More recently we have been working on new resources for families affected by eating disorders in NSW and are working with beyondblue, Relationships Australia and Hunter Primary Care on a new pilot program that supports the information and support needs of family and friends of people who have attempted suicide. A glaringly obvious gap in national suicide prevention resources and services.

But, as we work to address some of these gaps for family and friends, I need to ask whether we have really made enough progress when it comes to the mental health and wellbeing of carers. Have we moved far enough, quickly enough?

"Whether you are supporting someone with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, drug and alcohol issues or any other mental illness, there are physical and emotional demands that come with it."

Jaelea Skehan, Director, Hunter Institute of Mental Health

The practical, physical, economic and emotional demands of supporting a loved one with a mental illness can be enormous. But to date, most of our national conversations about carers have focused on their right to be involved in service delivery. Most of the discussions have focused on the important role they play in the life of the person they are supporting.

And these are certainly important. But we need to keep the conversation going about the impact that the caring role can have and commit to supporting people to manage that impact. We need a national agenda that also recognises the rights of those that care for someone affected by mental illness, not to have their own mental health and wellbeing compromised because of the vital caring role they play.

Three years ago, 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.

At the very least, this report showed that the need for programs like this is great. Upon entering the program carers reported poor physical and mental health, challenges with their relationships and reduced participation in social activities.

Even more worrying, people who entered this particular 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.

In evaluating the effectiveness of Partners in Depression we were able to demonstrate significant reductions in these levels of psychological distress at program completion and six-months following the program.

With the advancement in digital platforms, there is even more scope to increase our offerings to carers – linking them with information, support, connection to peers and pathways to care if and when they may need it.

People who love, live with and care for someone with a mental illness need timely and equitable access to interventions that enhance their wellbeing and prevent the onset of mental ill-health.

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. And our carers certainly deserve to be well.

To find out more about our Partners in Depression program, visit www.partnersindepression.com.au

Connect with other carers online through the SANE forums at www.sane.org

Get involved in Carers Week and make a pledge at http://www.carersweek.com.au/make-a-pledge/