A lack of respite support for unpaid carers in Northern Ireland has taken a toll on the mental health of elderly woman, Freda Carson, who described her situation as being in a “deep, dark hole.” Mrs. Carson, who has been the primary caregiver for her husband for almost five years, revealed that she has not had a break in nearly a year. This issue is not unique to Mrs. Carson, as a recent report by Carers NI found that 48% of unpaid carers experienced symptoms of depression, while 79% often felt lonely.
The survey, which included responses from 1,024 unpaid carers across Northern Ireland, shed light on the challenges faced by over 220,000 individuals who provide unpaid care for their sick or disabled family members or friends. These unpaid carers play a crucial role in reducing the pressure on the health and social care system by keeping people at home instead of in residential care or hospitals.
The impact of being a primary carer on one’s mental health can be especially challenging when caring for someone with complex needs. Mrs. Carson’s husband lives with anxiety, depression, and experiences psychosis, which adds to the strain of her caregiving responsibilities. While Mrs. Carson initially managed to cope, the past year has been particularly difficult for her. The lack of respite support and the resulting isolation have taken a toll on her mental well-being. Mrs. Carson expressed her exhaustion and frustration at not being able to access the support she needs, feeling like nobody is listening to her pleas. She described the experience as being trapped in a deep, dark hole.
The findings of the Carers NI survey highlight the urgent need for action to address the mental health challenges faced by unpaid carers. Craig Harrison from Carers NI emphasized that the unrelenting pressure of providing round-the-clock care has resulted in devastating levels of mental ill health among carers. Depression, stress, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness are everyday realities for many carers, and they often encounter barriers when attempting to access help.
Harrison called for steps to be taken to reduce waiting lists for mental health services, improve awareness of available support, and prioritize access to assistance for carers. Without these measures, more individuals will continue to struggle with the spiral of caregiving and mental ill-health, with dire consequences for their overall well-being and quality of life. The report serves as a wakeup call for policymakers and healthcare providers to prioritize the mental health of unpaid carers and ensure that they have the support they need to continue their invaluable work.