I was a bit hesitant to write this article. My background is not in psychology or in mental health. But I soon realised that I have something to write about: my first-hand experience of what it is to be a carer and my perspectives on the mental health of carers.
I do not personally know a psychologist, but I do know they are very much needed in a world where depression, among other mental health problems, is prevalent. According to World Health Organization, globally, around 300 million people of all ages are afflicted with depression.
I have been a carer for a large part of my life, looking after a close relative suffering from severe mental health. It has not been an easy journey as I have had to battle and stand as an advocate for the person who pretty much brought me up.
It hurts to hear that people still ridicule those suffering from mental ill health. There still, unfortunately, is a lot of stigma in the community. Things are improving with more awareness being raised, especially from the likes of Psychreg.
As a carer, I have had to spend so much time visiting my cared for in the inpatient wards, struggling to get my voice heard through the Care Programme Approach meetings, and even trying to juggle my carers assessment.
The carer’s world can be a minefield, because the risk is that you could lose the relationship with the person you care for at any time. Then there is the anxiety and worry that the person you love is at a greater risk because you are not there to support them. Carers need information and psychiatrists are busy. Carers may not always find out what they need to know about the person they are caring for. This checklist is designed to help you get all the information you need about the diagnosis and treatment of the person you care for.
Over the years, I have seen witnessed how much damage mental health can wreak on a family. Still, I am grateful for the intervention some mental health staff have done in order to keep things easier for me and who I care for, but there is much work to be done. Not only is there stigma for mental health, but also for those caring for someone suffering from mental health. Carers like myself are unpaid and often shunned because we know little about mental illness. But that does not mean we should not be partners.
Carers are there when the person is going through a crisis and carers are also there when the service user is discharged. Carers should be acknowledged for the vital role they play and should also be supported. To make matters even more challenging, the NHS is under severe strain – mental health services are not getting the funding they require to treat those suffering from mental ill health, and this, in turn, adds extra pressure to families and carers having to pick up the pieces.
The past four years I have taken the knowledge of my carer experience and shared this with other carers. I have been actively involved with my local mental health trust, and in the past became a carer governor for them. I am trying to push for better policies for carers under the auspices of a recognised charity called Carers Trust. Their policy ‘Triangle of Care’ aims to ensure that patients and mental health staff, along with carers, work as one unit since we all want to move towards a journey of recovery.
In the long run, I can only hope more research is done to take into account the carers’ experience. Psychology needs to reflect what is happening in the community, especially if mental health problems can tear families apart. Carers need to be acknowledged and should be championed for the efforts they could easily walk away from.
Matthew McKenzie has been a carer for 16 years and is currently a carer adviser in south-east London.