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How Caregivers of People with Mental Conditions Can Avoid Burnout

Updated on May 18, 2020
Carola Finch profile image

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental illness and cognitive conditions..

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At several times in my life, I looked after loved ones with mental illness or cognitive issues. It was not until one person I cared for went to a nursing home that I realized that I was not only exhausted, but I was close to being burned out mentally and physically.

Mental illness can cause chaos in the lives of caregivers. One minute they are convincing a senior relative with dementia not to go out the door and wander the neighborhood. The next, caregivers may be trying to convince police that their mentally ill loved one called 911 because of delusions and a severe anxiety attack, not because they are being abused. How can caregivers reclaim their lives and survive?

Signs of burnout

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability, being unable to relax
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • A weakened immune system
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Digestive problems
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Eating habit changes, weight gain or loss
  • Isolating from others
  • Overreacting to stress
  • Alcohol or drug abuse

Steps to Avoiding Burnout

Several coping strategies can help to prevent burnout.

Practice self-compassion

I have read many articles about de-stressing by going for walks, exercising, listening to music, doing breathing exercises, and soaking in long bubble baths. The experts are telling me that I have to take care of myself.
Really? Some days passed by like a blur and I cannot wait to crash into bed.

Caregivers may also have to deal with family conflict, social withdrawal, and financial strain. According to Penn State Health, people who care for others have a higher risk of developing mental health disorders. Many caregivers experience anxiety and depression.

The Mayo Clinic and other experts say that caring for mental and physical health are important for caregivers but carving out time for self-care can be difficult. People who look after others must overcome guilt for taking time for themselves. It is not selfish to pay attention to their own needs. One thing that helps me is to hit the gym and use the treadmill and sauna (sigh). Trying to keep to a routine helps caregivers to meet their health goals and lessens their stress levels. They need to recharge our batteries to survive.

Some days, caregivers may need to be creative to find time to breathe and de-stress. They must spend a lot of time waiting for doctors’ appointments and emergency department waiting rooms, among other things. I have come up with some ways to de-stress during these times. My loved one and I will laugh or gasp at social media posts. If I am on my own, I will relax to music and try deep breathing exercises. I have recorded a lot of yoga shows at home that I play and practice at my convenience. I focus on the positive things about being a caregiver instead of the negative such as valuing the time with my mentally ill loved one.

Many caregivers are also caring for their families and others. Caregivers cannot give their best if they do not take care of themselves. They cannot be effective when they are on the verge of burnout. If caregivers have health concerns, they should take the time to seek medical advice.

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Eat well and get enough sleep

Caring for others can make people forget to eat and keep them up at night. They will be tempted to eat fast food on the run. Alcohol or drugs seem to be a way to destress but actually exacerbates their problems. Regular, healthy meals prevent irritability and fatigue.

When I first became a caregiver, I would wait all night with the person I cared for at an emergency department until the hospital found a bed for him or released him after a night of observation. These long vigils left me braindead the next day.
I changed my approach by waiting until my loved one had been seen by a doctor and was in a secure area where they would be safe from harm. My loved one would usually tell me to go home or assent to me leaving. Then, I fell into bed and wake up refreshed the next day with no guilt for leaving the person.

Learn more about mental illness

Mental illness can be scary at first. The more educated caregivers are, the better they can handle the challenges to come. For example, people with mental illness tend to say hurtful things when they are delusional or psychotic. Caregivers should recognize that it is the illness talking and not the mentally ill individual. Caregivers can be less stressed and less inclined to take the person's words personally.

Let go of the need to fix the person

Caregivers hate seeing loved ones suffer from the symptoms of their illness. Sometimes, they try to make things better for the individuals they are caring for by manipulating and controlling them. For example, caregivers may nag at them to see a doctor for treatment. However, they cannot force mentally ill people to accept their mental issues or force them to go through treatment. People who care for the mentally ill have to let go of the things they cannot control to keep their own sanity.

Caregivers walk a fine line between providing care and encouraging the people they care for to be independent. Fortunately, modern technology such as android phones with Google Calendar can remind the mentally ill of upcoming tests, doctor’s appointments, or when to take meds.

Caregivers may think they need to swoop in and rescue mentally ill people when things go wrong. Instead, people with mental illness should be given opportunities to demonstrate that they can manage their conditions and lead productive lives. These opportunities provide people with mental illness hope and the confidence to face their lives’ challenges.

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Seek help and support

Friends and family can be a soft place to fall, offering listening ears and providing social connections. Support groups can help assure caregivers that they are not alone and encourage them to be self-compassionate. Online resources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), The Family Caregiver Alliance, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide helpful information and links to resources.

Concluding Thoughts

Being a caregiver can seem neverending. Sometimes caregivers need to wait a long time for a treatment plan that works. Every individual responds to medication or therapies differently. I have seen, however, that people with mental illness can improve dramatically with the right treatment and go on to lead productive lives.

Caregivers may go through times when the recipients of their care do not seem to be getting better. There are barriers such as mentally ill people’s unwillingness to accept their diagnosis and refusal to get treatment. There is always hope, however, that their situations will improve over time.

Researchers are actively developing new medications and new treatment methods all the time. Caregivers have every reason to hope that the people they care for can manage their symptoms and get better - if not now, in the future.

References:

Self-care for the caregiver, Harvard Medical School, Marlynn Wei, MD, JD
Family Members and Caregivers, NAMI
Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself, Mayo Clinic
Caregiver Stress and Burnout, helpguide.org

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