How to look after yourself while caring for someone with a mental illness

Wednesday, 18 October 2023

One in five Australians will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. Their family and friends will often be the ones caring for them, whether that’s for the short- or long-term.

It can be stressful, intimidating, and even painful to care for a loved one who has a mental illness. Their health condition might affect their behaviour, emotions, and personality. They may say and do things that are hurtful and scary to watch. Sometimes, they may not even want your care or understand the importance of it.

All these feelings are normal. Caring for someone with a mental illness is a huge responsibility and can come with considerable personal strain. That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself when caring for someone else.

National Carers Week runs from the 15th to the 20th of October and coincides with Mental Health Month. It recognises the 2.65 million Australians who provide unpaid care and support to a family member or friend.

Being a carer is not the same as working a nine-to-five job; it goes non-stop, day and night. So, this National Carers Week we’re taking the time to check back in on you.

You are a better carer when you look after yourself. Here are some strategies to help you look after yourself when you are caring for someone else with a mental illness.

Get informed and learn new skills

Having a good understanding of mental health conditions will not only help you be a better support person. It will also help you to better externalise the sometimes painful reactions of the person you’re caring for.

These reactions can be hard to experience, especially when someone you care for deeply rejects you or refuses care. But it is important to remember exactly who the person is you are caring for, even though their illness may affect who they are now.

Understanding their condition’s specific effects and the treatments available can help you through this. Once you understand this, it is easier to separate the person from the illness. This is called externalisation, and it can be helpful for both you and the person you are caring for.

Practice self-care and make time for yourself

Prioritising time for yourself will let you reset, refresh, and restore your energy and mind. You cannot give on an empty tank, and it’s important to balance being an effective carer with your own health and wellbeing.

Acknowledging you, yourself, need care and time is one of the hardest things a carer has to do.

Self-care stretches across all aspects of our life. If you’re just beginning your self-care journey, it may be helpful to focus on just one area before incorporating it fully into your lifestyle.

  • Make sleep your best friend. Get enough sleep and do this consistently and as often as you possibly can.
  • Eat healthy. Consider planning your meals in advance or starting with meal kits if that is too challenging to manage.
  • Exercise regularly. You might get the heart pumping with a run, swim, box, or bike ride, push your muscles to the limit at the gym, or join a fitness class or community team sport. Find the option that is right for you, enjoyable, and, most importantly, sustainable.
  • Practice mindfulness techniques. This looks different to every person. It could be meditation, gratitude journaling, or a daily mindful walk.
  • Share your feelings and experiences. And do this often. Whether it is informally with a friend or partner, or more formally with a health professional, it is important to talk about our experiences.
  • Stay connected. It is terribly easy to allow yourself to become isolated and for caring to swallow your entire personality. But it’s important to make time for relationships outside your caring responsibilities.
  • Take regular respite. Guilt and fear can make this challenging, but you will be a calmer, more effective carer when you incorporate this regularly into your lifestyle.

Expand their support network and share the task

Caring for someone you love is never a burden, but it is a physically and emotionally time-intensive commitment. For some, it can be a full-time job, only one where you never clock off at the end of the day. 

Expanding their support network can take some weight off your shoulders. This isn’t a selfish task; it is allowing you to be the best carer you can be, by creating space and time for you to look after yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help—both practically and emotionally—from friends and family. But even more, consider seeking professional assistance or input.

You don’t need to do this alone. There are many free services you can access if you just know where to look. Knowing where to begin isn’t always easy. So, we’ve compiled a short list below to get you started.

Job finding and keeping with a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider

Maintaining a stable routine plays a huge role in supporting mental health and wellbeing, and employment is a big part in this. But it can be difficult to prepare for, find, and keep a job when someone is also managing their mental health.

When someone connects with a Disability Employment Services (DES) provider like EPIC Assist, they access free, professional job support tailored to them, their mental health condition, and their career goals. DES providers work to connect job seekers with inclusive employers who understand their mental health condition and can advocate for reasonable adjustments that set them up for success.

All Disability Employment Services (DES) providers are unique and the person you’re caring for has the power to choose which provider is best for them. For example, EPIC Assist is a not-for-profit provider that offers a free mental health consultancy to job seekers who may need additional support throughout the job finding and keeping journey.

Financial assistance

Sometimes, employment might not yet be possible. Disability Support Pension (DSP) is designed to support those who are unable to earn an income due to health or illness.

It’s important to note that you can access Disability Employment Services (DES) and still receive Disability Support Pension (DSP) payments at the same time. In most cases, a recipient can work up to 29 hours a week and continue to receive part of the Disability Support Pension (DSP). Overall, someone will always be better off financially earning an income.

Tailored carer support packages and respite

Carer Gateway is an Australian Government website and phone service for carers. You can access tailored support packages designed to provide you with the services and support specific to your caring role. This could include educational resources, planned respite, cooking and cleaning services, shopping assistance, and transport.

Legal support

Sometimes you need to make tough decisions about treatment, care, or legal powers of attorney or guardianship. You can access independent legal services through the Office of the Public Guardian in your state or territory.

Seek the support you need

Caring for someone else is not a reason to forget or neglect to look for yourself. Remember: you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help fit someone else’s. In the same stance, if you don’t look after your own wellbeing, how can you care for someone you love?

We understand this isn’t always easy. Caring for someone can be frustrating, exhausting, lonely, and isolating. You may feel like your needs are not as important as the person you’re caring for. You might even feel guilty or unentitled to help—after all, they are the one living with an illness.

But you are important too. Your emotional, mental, and physical health requires care and attention. Just as you would seek professional assistance for the person you’re caring for, don’t forget to seek the support you need as well.

  • Carer Payment and Carer Allowance are financial support payments you might be eligible for through Centrelink.
  • Carers Australia is the national peak body representing Australia’s unpaid carers. They advocate on their behalf and work to influence policies and services.
  • Carer Gateway doesn’t just provide services to help you care for someone else, it also supports you. You can access support groups, counselling, coaching services, and emergency respite support if you suddenly find you cannot care.
  • Young Carers Network raises young carer awareness, provides information, and directs young carers to appropriate pathways for support.
  • Beyond Blue Online Forum is a moderated, online peer support forum for sharing tips on how to support someone with a mental health condition. You can also seek support for your own wellbeing.

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