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Caregiver Depression: How to Spot the Signs

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 9/18/2022

Being a caregiver is hard. The amount of time a caregiver spends seeing to the needs of others can sometimes feel overwhelming, and when caregivers get overwhelmed, they can sometimes put their own care last on the priorities list. So, instead of searching the web for caregiver depression, a caregiver is throwing themselves deeper into their responsibilities. 

The problem is that caregivers who put themselves last for too long can create the ideal breeding ground for problems of their own, which can make caring for others more difficult — and self-care impossible. 

Whether you’re struggling yourself or seeing someone you love have a hard time with the balance, worrying about their mental health is understandable. But spotting the signs that something is wrong can be difficult when someone gets good at putting themselves last. 

The signs that caregiver burnout becoming caregiver depression can sometimes be hard to spot, so learning how to identify them requires some knowledge. That knowledge starts with some basics about the act of caregiving and how it affects you. 

So let’s start there.

Why Caregivers Get Depression

Here are some fast facts about caregivers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that more than 40 million people across more than 36 million households in the U.S. alone function as unpaid family caregivers.

The NIH explains that more than 80 percent of these people are caring for one family member, though as many as 30 percent of them may be caring for two or more.

That’s a lot of people, and it can be a huge problem for that many people to have that many responsibilities. And it turns out that many of them struggle to handle it all. 

Caregiving can represent a wide range of responsibilities, from preparing meals and administering medications for a care recipient, to transportation and coordination of further medical care, to providing emotional and physical support to those that depend on them.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says that roughly 38 percent of caregivers find their difficult situation “extremely stressful.” The ADAA also notes a statistic that an estimated 20 percent of family caregivers suffer from depression

Based on that info, there’s a roughly one in five chance that a caregiver suffers from depression.

If you found your way to this article out of concern that you or a loved one is experiencing depression as a caregiver, you’re not likely to get a lot of comfort from those odds. 

But odds aren’t a reliable way of determining whether someone’s depressed. Instead, we need to look at depressive symptoms and symptoms of caregiver burnout.

The Signs of Caregiver Depression

The stress of caregiving can be difficult to measure, but we can draw some conclusions based on what we do know.

According to the ADAA, putting the needs of others in front of your own can be draining. And that’s just one symptom of depression in the role. Depression might also appear in the form of feeling:

And those feelings might hang around for quite a while, causing you to struggle in your role and your normal daily function in caregiving tasks and daily activities. 

If you or a loved one has felt or behaved in that way for two weeks or more, it may be a sign that you’re dealing with a form of clinical depression.

Signs of depression might also manifest as sleep disturbances, feelings of worthlessness, appetite or weight changes, fatigue and reduced interest in physical activities, suicidal thoughts or attention issues.

These mental and physical symptoms of depression may not be present in the level of care being given, but may also appear in the caregiver’s off-the-clock life and personal daily tasks. 

They may become isolated, stop finding enjoyment in activities they used to love or have insomnia.

Sure, a little not-so-chronic stress might be a natural part of a high-pressure responsibility to a human being, but if these signs start appearing in patterns, it may indicate that depression is beginning to affect a caregiver’s mental health. 

And that might be dangerous for everyone involved.

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Why Caregiver Mental Health is Important

You might be surprised to hear us say this, but the most important reason that the mental health of a caregiver matters is not the safety of the person receiving care, but it’s actually the caregiver’s health. It’s simple: no caregiver, no care being taken.

A caregiver may sometimes forget that their responsibility to themself should be included on the priorities list, let alone placed as number one. That can be a problem, because an exhausted, tired, unmotivated caregiver with feelings of hopelessness might not be able to provide the intended quality of care they promised. 

When a caregiver is struggling to take care of everyone, it’s important to remember to ask for help — sometimes called respite care — to get assistance for the dependant and also for themselves.

This may come in the form of other family members stepping in to assist with daily caregiving duties, or hiring a professional caregiver to take some of the duties on throughout the week so that people in a caregiving situation are still able to function in their daily lives.

It may also mean getting help for their own issues in the form of mental health support.

No kidding, we can cite numerous studies on caregivers — spousal caregivers, Alzheimer's and individuals with dementia, stroke patient caregivers, elder caregivers — that show vulnerability to depression for the person taking on responsibilities. 

It might take more than recreational activities to take care of the mental health of a professional or informal caregiver. They may need help for depression or other mood disorders.

Caregiver Depression Treatment Options

Treatment for depression is the same for everyone in that no two people will have exactly the same needs. As such, any effective therapy will generally take several forms: therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.

Each of these treatment options can help with a different problem: depression and anxiety medication may help positively affect your brain chemistry, while therapy may help you learn to manage those negative thoughts and emotions more effectively and reduce their impact on your health and happiness.

A healthcare provider may also suggest lifestyle changes to benefit your health — managing sleep, nutrition, alcohol and drug use and exercise are all crucial for both your physical health and your biological health too — not just the health of a family member you’re responsible for due to familial obligations.

There are resources for caregivers out there, including caregiver support organizations, so if you’re experiencing caregiver distress, seek them out.

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Caregiver Depression: The Big Picture

Here’s the thing about getting help for depression as a caregiver: you’re going to have to ask for it.

We know — the last thing a person who provides help probably wants to do is seek out help. 

But the reality isn’t that a caregiver should never need help. The reality is that a caregiver should be the first person to ask for help because they know exactly how important help can be.

If you’re struggling with caregiving responsibilities right now, remember that you’re loved too, and you deserve the same standard of care and quality of life as anyone else. 

Then take a deep breath and ask for help getting it. 

Not sure where to start? Our online therapy is accessible right now, so you can be placed in touch with a mental health professional without having to leave home (or even bed). 

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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