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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
If you’re a caregiver, you may be familiar with the strain and emotional toll the job can take. The amount of time a caregiver spends seeing to the needs of others can become overwhelming — and when they get overwhelmed, self-care for caregivers can end up at the bottom of the list.
But caregiver depression is very real. Those who put themselves last for too long can create the ideal breeding ground for problems of their own, such as depression and anxiety. This can make caring for others more difficult — and self-care impossible.
That said, there are ways to prevent and manage caregiver stress. This guide will cover why caregiver depression happens and offer tips for caregivers to manage the stress and anxiety that may come with this work.
A quick fact on caregivers: More than one in five Americans are caregivers. They provide support and care to adults or children with special needs, such as older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.
Caregiving can represent a wide range of responsibilities. The job may involve anything from preparing meals and administering medications for a care recipient to transportation and coordination of further medical care to providing emotional and physical support.
Some not-so-fun facts: Four in 10 caregivers (about 38 percent) find their work “extremely stressful,” and 20 percent of family caregivers suffer from depression — twice the rate of reported depressive disorders in the general population. And among caregivers for people with certain health conditions, like dementia or strokes, the rates can be higher.
Although not listed specifically as one of the common depression types, caregiver depression can certainly have an emotional toll. Because of the demands of the job, caregivers may often put on a brave face, leading to high-functioning depression or caregiver burnout.
The demands of caregiving can be all-consuming and lead to:
Lack of sleep
Less time with other family members and loved ones
Less time for enjoyable activities
Caregiver burden can also happen due to witnessing the challenges the person in their care is experiencing, such as:
Their personality disappearing
Pain or other physical problems
So it’s not surprising that an emotionally strenuous job like caregiving could lead to mental exhaustion or even crippling depression. If you suspect you or a loved one might be dealing with caregiver stress, there are signs of depression you can look out for.
Putting the needs of others before your own can be draining. And that’s just one depression symptom that comes with the role. Caregiver burden shares similarities with many other symptoms of depression:
Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
Irritability or restlessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
Decreased energy or fatigue
Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
Problems with sexual desire and performance
Weight loss or gain
Physical aches or pains
Increased use of alcohol or drugs
Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
Unfortunately, these feelings can hang around for quite a while. If your depressive symptoms last for two weeks or more, it may be a sign you’re dealing with a form of clinical depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
It’s also highly likely that family caregivers experience high levels of anxiety, especially those who care for loved ones with cancer. The anxiety symptoms that result may be similar to those of depression. However, there are differences between the two, such as physical symptoms, like chest pain and tingling or numbness in the extremities.
Those who care for patients who’ve suffered from a stroke are also likely to experience anxiety or depressive symptoms. In a study of 117 caregivers, around 43 percent experienced anxiety symptoms, and 27 percent experienced severe depression symptoms.
Sure, a little 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 could be dangerous for everyone involved.
Knowing when you’re dealing with caregiver stress is a good first step to addressing your mental health needs. But taking the next step to get help is also pretty big.
Treatment for caregiver depression is often the same as treatment for most types of depression. Healthcare professionals may recommend psychotherapy, depression medications, lifestyle changes or a combination of options.
Psychotherapy or talk therapy for depression is a widely used and highly effective treatment for anxiety as well.
When dealing with depression, you’ll work with a mental health professional to talk through any mental and emotional struggles you’re having. In each session, you might develop healthy strategies to deal with factors that contribute to your depression or anxiety.
There are several types of therapy, from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to humanistic therapy and exposure therapy. You can get connected with a licensed mental health professional today through online therapy resources.
Another common treatment for depression is depression medication. There are a few different types of antidepressants, with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) being the most commonly prescribed.
Antidepressant medication is thought to work by slightly altering your brain chemistry, allowing more chemicals that promote happiness, motivation and a content mood. They may also be used in conjunction with therapy to treat anxiety or depression.
A licensed psychiatrist (who you can connect with through online psychiatry) will determine if antidepressants are the right option for you.
Healthy habits won’t magically cure depression. Still, taking care of your physical health while living a healthy lifestyle does have its merits and can boost your mood.
Getting enough sleep each night, eating a healthy diet and regularly exercising can all help release stress-relieving hormones while stabilizing your mood and boosting your energy levels.
And although alcohol may seem like a relief when dealing with caregiver stress, heavy drug and alcohol use can actually make stress and depression worse.
You may feel like you should be putting the person you’re caring for first. But you can’t care for someone else if you’re not also caring for yourself.
Self-care for caregivers can look like any other self-care: keeping up with hobbies, seeing loved ones or starting the day with something you love.
Self-care may also look like joining a caregiver support group. These groups provide emotional support and are an outlet for fellow care providers to talk through any stressors that come with their work.
Here are more tips for caregivers living with depression to better manage their symptoms and daily life.
There are lots of caregiving responsibilities when you provide support to someone in need — including responsibility for your own mental health and well-being. It can be difficult to take care of yourself, but self-care for caregivers is also incredibly necessary.
Caregivers (or those who care for others with special needs or mental illness) are highly likely to experience mental disorders, resulting in caregiver depression or anxiety.
Signs of caregiver depression look very similar to those of major depression, such as a persistent low mood, fatigue, loss of interest in typical activities, loneliness and trouble sleeping.
Fortunately, just as the signs of caregiver depression are similar to those of depression, so are the treatment options. Help for caregivers can look like therapy, antidepressant medication, wellness tips, practicing self-care or a combination.
Caregiving can certainly take a toll on anyone’s mental health. Just because you’re responsible for taking care of someone else doesn’t mean you can’t get help — and dealing with depressive symptoms doesn’t make you less capable of your job.
Our mental health services can provide you with more resources to get help for caregiver depression. Get started today.
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