Any discussion about mental illness isn’t complete without discussing the caregivers. There are three primary types of caregivers, and they all play an important role. Medical professionals, mental health advocates (including peer supporters), and family members (which includes close friends) are instrumental in providing care day in and day out for people struggling with mental illness. For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on family members who are caring for their mentally ill loved ones.
Whether someone provides care one hour a day or 24/7, there is one universal and important truth that needs to be taken very seriously.
Not Practicing Self-Care Can (and Does) Make Things Worse
Family members who don’t practice self-care may not be in the best position to provide care, and that can lead to serious issues – even death – for the person living with mental illness. The primary caregiver is especially vulnerable to being overwhelmed and the chance of this only increases when caring for a loved one.
As an example, when I provide any type of care for my wife, I am deeply invested in the outcome. Whatever is affecting her is affecting me, even if to a lesser extent. In other words, this is very personal to me, and I haven’t yet considered her experience at all.
Now, add to that fear, setbacks, and even things like lack of sleep, and it doesn’t take much imagination to put together a scenario where something could go wrong. This isn’t because of lack of caring, or poor intentions, or even lack of effort, but it is because of poor planning and decision making.
Mental Illness Caregivers: Caring for Yourself Is Supporting Someone Else
What we all need to understand is that self-care is part of the job as a caregiver. A caregiver who is not at the top of their game can significantly diminish the potential outcome for the person who needs support. This isn’t just a problem for the person receiving care, but it can, and often does, lead to adverse psychological effects for the well-intentioned, overwhelmed caregiver.
When I speak to caregivers, the same flawed thinking is demonstrated over and over again. People believe that if they aren’t providing direct care for their loved one, then they aren’t providing any care at all. And, what is worse, some family members start to believe that because they aren’t sick, it wouldn’t be fair for them to enjoy life.
This is a strange thing to think, since one is in no way tied to the other. It is possible to have a high quality of life and acknowledge that someone else has a lower quality of life. This is a good thing, because it is much easier to pull someone up the hill when already at the top.
Self-care is not selfish; it is necessary. Not enjoying life doesn’t improve any situation or make anyone better.
Perhaps the best way I can sum this up is to ask: If you needed help, would you prefer your caregiver be well rested, prepared, and ready to assist or tired, resentful, and angry?
And which caregiver do you want to be?
This article previously appeared on Psych Central as Is Self-Care Vital for Family Members of the Mentally Ill?