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Double duty: How COVID-19 is affecting caregivers of persons living with mental illness

Tuesday, April 7th marks National Caregiver Day, created to recognize the millions of people in Canada who provide unpaid care to loved ones living with disabilities, illnesses, and other special needs. This year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the day takes on added significance as these carers face unprecedented challenges.

For many family members caring for persons who are living with mental health problems and illnesses, the hardships of COVID-19 are being added to an already full plate. As AMI-Quebec executive director Ella Amir explains, “The burdens of caregivers are magnified right now. They have many of the same concerns as non-caregivers in addition to this added responsibility. It can be a lot to manage at one time.” Amir’s non-profit organization helps families deal with the effects of mental illness through support groups, education, guidance, and advocacy.

One major challenge is the physical distancing directive, which makes it more difficult for caregivers to provide care and ensure the safety of their loved ones. Practical supports like doing laundry, preparing meals, or helping with finances are all hindered by the need for distance. Relying primarily on the phone to provide emotional support is equally challenging. If the carer is elderly or living with underlying physical conditions, their heightened vulnerability may mean eliminating all physical contact to protect their own health.  

Even if caregivers live in the same household as their family member, the challenges are vast. With many mental health problems, high stress may lead to escalating symptoms, leaving carers to deal with their own anxiety alongside the precarious condition of a loved one. And with the health-care system stretched increasingly thin, they are left to wonder whether emergency care will be available should that family member go into crisis.

Distancing measures have also led to the temporary closure of many outpatient mental health services. While inpatient care is ongoing, reduced visiting hours have created a barrier for carers trying to connect with loved ones in psychiatric hospitals or other inpatient programs. 

Fortunately, some support programs geared toward persons living with mental illness (and their caregivers) have moved to a virtual delivery model. AMI-Quebec, for example, has transferred all programs, including support groups, workshops, and individual counselling, to telephone or videoconferencing platforms that allow families to continue getting the support they need. To find virtual mental health supports in your area, contact your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

For Amir, making sure family support groups and other programs continue without interruption was priority one. “Nobody understands the burdens of a caregiver better than another caregiver. The support they can offer each other right now is invaluable.”   

Along with supporting each other and their loved ones, it’s important that carers make time for themselves. According to Cynthia Clark, chair of the Ontario Family Caregivers’ Advisory Network, “Caregivers must remember that self-care is not optional. It’s an essential part of effectively supporting another person.”

For more considerations for caregivers during COVID-19, see the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s curated list.

While the coronavirus pandemic is affecting us all, we might also take the time to consider the challenges carers are facing. They need our understanding and compassion more than ever. If there’s a caregiver in your life, the best thing you can do is connect with them, says Amir. “Caregivers are already an isolated group at the best of times. Reaching out with a simple phone call can make all the difference.”


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