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Kinds of caring

Caring for someone with a mental illness

As many as one in four people experience some form of mental health problems. Caring for someone with mental health problems bring unique challenges.

Mental health problems vary greatly in severity. Mild problems are common and can be helped with understanding and support. Severe mental illness, such as deep depression, is less common and poses more challenges.

Communication can be a struggle for many people with a mental illness. Some people don't have the motivation to communicate, while others lack the confidence to say what they really want to. Some people experience hallucinations, which can affect how and when they communicate.

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 illness.

Often, people with mental health problems feel cut off from other people, including family, friends and neighbours. It's important to listen to what they’ve got to say and to 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 illness. It’s important to remember that they just happen to be going through a period of mental distress.

Diagnosis

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 psychiatrist with input from other healthcare professionals.

Getting a definite diagnosis of a mental illness can be difficult as there are no definitive physical tests. A diagnosis will usually be made by collecting lists of symptoms and a medical history. As a carer, you may also be asked to describe your experience of their illness.

If the person you care for doesn't agree with their initial diagnosis, they can get a second opinion.

Confidentiality

People who care for someone with a mental illness may find that some healthcare professionals are reluctant or unwilling to share information with them. This can be very frustrating as very 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.

To avoid this problem, try to get the consent of the person you care for to discuss their care needs as early as possible after their diagnosis. 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 tell you 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.

Behaviour

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 it.

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 assessment under the Care Programme Approach for the person you care for, as well as a carer’s assessment for yourself.

If you believe that you or anyone else is in immediate danger, contact social services to get an assessment. If you can't contact anyone in the crisis team at your local social services, call 999 and ask for an ambulance to take them to the accident and emergency department of a hospital.

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.

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 as you. Some local carers' organisations have separate meetings for carers of people with mental health problems. For details of your nearest carers' support group, call Carers Direct on 0300 123 1053. Lines are open 9am–8pm Monday to Friday and 11am–4pm on weekends (closed bank holidays). Alternatively, check the directory of local services (above right).

The mental health charity Rethink offers a number of specialist services across the country for carers of people with severe mental illness. It also provides more than 138 groups, which meet regularly to give carers and people with severe mental illness a support network in their local area.

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.

It’s important to maintain your social activities. You may need to have a conversation with the person you care for about what you're prepared to do and what you're 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.

Looking after yourself

Although it’s important to support the person you care for, it’s essential to look after your own mental health too. If you start to feel depressed or anxious and getting support with caring hasn’t helped, it may be time to speak to your GP about the impact your caring role is having on your mental health. For more information, see the section on your own wellbeing.

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Page last reviewed: 13/06/2012

Next review due: 13/06/2014

Call Carers Direct on 0300 123 1053

Confidential information and advice for carers.

Lines are open 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday (except bank holidays), 11am to 4pm at weekends. Request a free call back or an interpreted call back in one of more than 170 languages including ربي, বাংলা, 中文, Français, ગુજરાતી, Polski, Português, ਪੰਜਾਬੀ, Soomaali, Español, Türkçe and .اردو.

You can talk to an adviser live online or send a query by email.

Find out more about the Carers Direct helpline.

Carers: mental health services

Read about the support on offer if you look after someone who has a mental health problem

Worried someone is depressed?

If you’re concerned about a friend or relative who seems depressed, find out how you can help them

Mental health helplines

If you're concerned about your mental health or that of a loved one, these helplines can offer advice and support

Attitudes to mental health

Four people who've had mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia and personality disorder, talk about the negative reactions they faced and how they overcame them.

Media last reviewed: 29/08/2013

Next review due: 29/08/2015