According to the National Institute of Mental Health, each year an estimated 17 million adult Americans suffer from depression. If you're the primary caregiver for one of those millions of depressed people, you're at risk for becoming depressed yourself. "Be aware that when you are a primary caregiver for someone who has depression, it's incredibly stressful," says Peter Kanaris, a clinical psychologist in Smithtown, New York. "Family members can almost have a quality of contagion – getting what the depressed has. You start to feel down. Negative feelings start to rub off on you." To protect your own mental health, Dr. Kanaris recommends keeping a boundary of separation between your personal life and your role as a depression caregiver.
One way to provide this distance and help keep caregiver stress at bay is to schedule regular "time-outs" for yourself on your calendar. Take time away from being a caregiver to do something you enjoy. Continue to pursue activities that give you pleasure, such as music, hobbies, exercise or walking, or spending time in nature. You need to take care of yourself so that your mental health doesn't deteriorate. It's easy to become so focused on helping the depressed person that you neglect yourself. Your diet can get out of whack. You can begin to feel tired or down because you haven't been eating balanced, nutritious meals.
To keep caregiver stress from becoming unmanageable, begin tracking your behavior and what you're eating. Kanaris advises that you keep track of sleep problems and the amount of sleep you're getting at night, as well as how much laughter is in your day. "Laughter is one of the first things to disappear with depression," Kanaris explains. In addition to being aware of humor in your life, you'll want to track your thoughts and feelings by day, as you can lose track of yourself in the constant caring for the depressed person. It's also important to keep up your social contacts. Being social and interacting with other people will go a long way toward helping you manage stress.
Mental health warning signs for caregivers
To preserve your health and well-being, and to continue being a supportive caregiver for your depressed loved one, seek help if you experience any of the following:
- Less energy
- An increase in physical illnesses (catching colds often, for example)
- Constant fatigue or exhaustion
- Sleep problems, such as insomnia, poor sleep or too little sleep
- Trouble relaxing, even when time is available
- An increase in impatience and irritability
- Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless or helpless
- Extreme, impulsive behavior, such as overeating, drinking too much alcohol or substance abuse