Lifting & Leaning

This piece, written by me, was originally published in the Australian Ageing Agenda, under the title ‘Promoting Good Mental Health for Carers’. It appeared as part of AAA’s focus on Mental Health Week and is reproduced with permission.

I read an article earlier this year in which Joe Hockey was described as having the toughest job in the country. After spraying a mouthful of coffee over my newspaper, I wondered what the country’s carers would think of that. Caring is a tough gig, but few and far between are the carers who fly business class, smoke cigars, or can expect to retire with a pension in excess of $100,000 per year.

Instead, carers spend their days lifting, showering, dressing, toileting, feeding, medicating and managing; often at the expense of their own physical and mental health. Carers experience higher than average rates of depression, anxiety and hopelessness, and my own research has found that family carers of people with dementia contemplate suicide at eight times the rate of the general population. In Mental Health Week, it is important we take time to acknowledge family carers – the people who really have the toughest job in the country – and explore how we might better support them in their role.

While systemic change takes time, there are four things we can do right now, this week, to promote good mental health for carers:

  1. Value their contribution: Feeling valued is an important part of good mental health and we can all do something to show carers we value the contribution they make to our community. If you are a neighbor, drop off a home-cooked meal. If you are a service provider, make time for a cup of tea and a chat. If you are a politician, arrange a consultation with the carers in your electorate.
  2. Encourage self-care: Self-care is the key to good mental health, but few carers can find the time. If you know a carer, offer to relieve them for a few hours this week so they can see a movie, get a massage, or go for a swim.
  3. Recognise carers as experts: Carers have a wealth of knowledge and experience, but they are often ignored or relegated to the waiting room. Health professionals, service providers, and other frontline staff should make a commitment this week to see carers as partners in care. This will empower carers and ensure the best possible outcome for the care recipient.
  4. Tackle stigma: The stigma that exists around suicide and mental illness can be a real barrier to help seeking. Many carers also encounter stigma associated with the disability, dementia, or other condition that affects their care recipient. This week, support the journalists, artists and film-makers who are committed to raising awareness, and take a stand against the media outlets that foster ignorance and fear.

In his Federal Budget speech this year, Joe Hockey told us it was time we all became “lifters, not leaners”. Carers are some of the best lifters I know, but in Mental Health Week, let’s lean in and give them a hand.

Carers who are contemplating suicide are encouraged to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. Carers who are experiencing depression or anxiety are encouraged talk to their GP about subsidized sessions with psychologist.