Caring for someone with a mental health condition
A mental health condition is where there are changes in a person's thinking, feelings and/or behaviours usually associated with distress and difficulty with day-to-day living.
Caring for someone with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety can be challenging, but there are resources and support to help you in your caring role. The most important thing to understand is that help is available, for you and the person you care for.
I need help right now
If the person you are caring for needs to talk to someone immediately, contact one of the following:
- Lifeline: 13 11 14
- MensLine Australia (for men of any age): 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- Healthdirect Australia: 1800 022 222
These phone lines are available to anyone in Australia 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are free or the cost of a local call (some charges may apply to calls from mobiles).
Is there a link between ageing and depression?
Older people who are lonely and don't have strong social networks and support can be at risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression.
Depression is often not well recognised or detected in older people. Quite often symptoms of depression, such as problems with sleeping, memory or concentration are mistakenly dismissed as a result of growing older. Sometimes depression co-exists with dementia and this can make the specific diagnosis difficult.
Physical illness is also linked to depression. Things like being more dependent on others for care can lead to a sense of a loss of dignity and independence, which may cause people to become depressed.
There are many different types of mental health conditions. Visit the Head to Health website for more comprehensive resources and information.
What can I do to help?
It’s important to help the person you care for understand that getting help is not a sign of weakness. Talk to their doctor, nurse or mental health professional about treatment options. To get a positive outcome from treatment:
- develop a trusting relationship with a health professional and work together to find a suitable treatment
- identify and work on factors which may have contributed to the mental health condition
- continue with treatment for as long as needed.
Make sure you have the written consent of the person you are caring for to speak to their health professional. Talk to the health professionals to find out the best way to do this. Carer Gateway has more information on talking to health professionals.
How do I know when professional help is needed?
The person you care for may feel embarrassed about asking for help. In some cases, they might not even know they have a mental health condition, but may worry about physical symptoms such as headaches or chest pain. These symptoms are often experienced with anxiety and other mental health conditions.
It’s important to always have new physical symptoms assessed by a doctor. If a person complains of chest pain, seek medical advice to make sure they are not having heart problems.
What treatments are available?
If you’re caring for an older person with a mental health condition, the treatment they receive will be the same as for any other age group. Treatment depends on their symptoms, and may include:
- healthy lifestyle changes such as getting plenty of exercise and having good nutrition
- counselling to help them address practical problems and conflicts, and to understand the reasons for their illness
- psychological interventions to help the person understand their thoughts, behaviour and relationships with other people
- medications to reduce or remove symptoms such as depressed feelings, restore normal sleep patterns and appetite, and reduce anxiety. Medications often take time to have a positive effect; generally people begin to feel better within six weeks.
Groups run by people who have experienced mental health conditions and have developed successful support networks are also available. These include self-help and mutual support groups, and mental health consumer organisations.
Making and keeping good friendships is very important when you have a mental health condition. Encourage the person you care for to make the most of family, friends and local community groups. Try not to let them become isolated.
Resources and support
There are a number of useful online resources that provide more information about mental health conditions and the help that is available:
- Beyond Blue: an independent, not-for-profit organisation working to increase awareness and understanding of depression and anxiety in Australia
- dNet: a comprehensive resource for information, help to access professionals, treatments and tools throughout Australia, as well as peer support through a message board and chat rooms
- BluePages: information on treatments for depression
- Black Dog Institute: a leader in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder
- Mental Help Net: mental health and wellness education and advocacy
- SANE Australia: a national charity helping all Australians affected by mental illness lead a better life
- Mental Health Foundation: an organisation of professionals, people with mental health conditions and their families, related organisations and members of the public
- Lifeline: an organisation that provides access to crisis support, suicide prevention and mental health support services.