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Family Mental Illness Stressful for Caregivers

Taking care of a loved one with a mental illness can lead to mental problems in the primary caregiver.

A new Canadian study has found family caregivers can experience high levels of stress, self-blame, substance abuse and depressive symptoms. Researchers suggest that caregivers refocus their priorities and lighten their load.

“Being the principal caregiver to a mentally ill family member is a stressor that often creates high levels of burden and contributes to depressive symptoms,” said lead author Dr. Carsten Wrosch, a psychology professor at Concordia University.

“Caring for a relative with a mental illness can be strenuous — such caregivers can even be more burdened than caregivers of dementia patients,” Wrosch said.

“That said, even in this situation, caregivers can experience high levels of well-being if they adjust their goals and use effective coping strategies.”

In the study, researchers followed family caregivers over a 17-month period and found those who reset priorities fared better. The research team expected that caregivers who are capable of adjusting important life goals (e.g., career, vacation, etc.) would cope better with caregiving stress and that this resilient process would protect their emotional well-being.

“We found participants who had an easier time abandoning goals blamed themselves less frequently for problems associated with caregiving and used alcohol or drugs less frequently to regulate their emotions,” said co-author Ella Amir.

“Avoiding self-blame and substance use, in turn, was associated with less caregiver burden and depressive symptoms,” said Amir.

“Being able to disengage from goals is protective against depressive symptoms, partly because it reduces the likelihood of coping through self-blame and substance use.”

The study is published in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Evolving demographics will increase the number of caregivers who are challenged to aid a loved one while often holding a job and perhaps raising a family. As such, caregivers can become overstretched.

While pursuing new goals was found to provide purpose to family caregivers, taking on novel pastimes could add to their strain.

“Caregivers can become stretched too thin if they pursue too many goals and that may distract them from addressing stress levels that elevate their burden,” Wrosch said.

“Pursuing new goals is a double-edged sword. It provides purpose, but also increases caregiving burden, since there are times when a family member’s illness suddenly takes a turn for the worse. And stressors can crop up unexpectedly in other close relationships or in the workplace.”

Of the 121 people who completed the study, most were about 60 years old and had cared for a relative for an average of 16 years. What’s more:

    • 78 percent of caregivers were women and 22 percent were men;


    • 57 percent had received an undergraduate degree or higher;


    • 73 percent were married or cohabitating with a partner;



    • 37 percent had relatives diagnosed with a mood disorder;


    • 22 percent had relatives diagnosed with other mental health conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Source: Concordia University

Family Mental Illness Stressful for Caregivers

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Family Mental Illness Stressful for Caregivers. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.