Skip to main content


Bearing through it

How caregivers of mentally ill kin can cope
May 24, 2011
By Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Version française

Caring for a family member with a mental illness can be a taxing experience marked by personal sacrifices and psychological problems. A new study from Concordia University, AMI-Québec and the University of British Columbia has found family caregivers can experience high levels of stress, self-blame, substance abuse and depressive symptoms — unless they refocus their priorities and lighten their load.

“Being the principal caregiver to a mentally ill family member is a stressor that often creates high levels of burden and contributes to depressive symptoms,” says lead author Carsten Wrosch, a professor in the Concordia University Department of Psychology and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development.

Carsten Wrosch
Carsten Wrosch, a professor in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development. | Photo by Concordia University

“Caring for a relative with a mental illness can be strenuous — such caregivers can even be more burdened than caregivers of dementia patients,” Wrosch continues. “That said, even in this situation, caregivers can experience high levels of well-being if they adjust their goals and use effective coping strategies.” 

Published in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the investigation followed family caregivers over a 17-month period and found those who reset priorities fared better.

The research team expected that caregivers who are capable of adjusting important life goals (e.g. career, vacation, etc.) would cope better with caregiving stress and that this resilient process would protect their emotional well-being.

“We found participants who had an easier time abandoning goals blamed themselves less frequently for problems associated with caregiving and used alcohol or drugs less frequently to regulate their emotions,” says co-author Ella Amir, a Concordia graduate and executive director at AMI-Québec, a grassroots organization committed to helping families manage the effects of mental illness.

“Avoiding self-blame and substance use, in turn, was associated with less caregiver burden and depressive symptoms,” continues Amir. “Being able to disengage from goals is protective against depressive symptoms, partly because it reduces the likelihood of coping through self-blame and substance use.”

Caregivers can become overstretched

Pursuing new goals was found to provide purpose to family caregivers, but taking on new pastimes could also add to their strain. “Caregivers can become stretched too thin if they pursue too many goals and that may distract them from addressing stress levels that elevate their burden,” says Wrosch.

“Pursuing new goals is a double-edged sword,” he adds. “It provides purpose, but also increases caregiving burden, since there are times when a family member’s illness suddenly takes a turn for the worse. And stressors can crop up unexpectedly in other close relationships or in the workplace.”

Of the 121 people who completed the study, most were about 60 years old and had cared for a relative for an average 16 years. What’s more: 

  • 78 per cent of caregivers were women and 22 per cent were men.
  • 57 per cent had received an undergraduate degree or higher.
  • 73 per cent were married or cohabiting with a partner.
  • 41 per cent had relatives diagnosed with schizophrenia.
  • 37 per cent had relatives diagnosed with a mood disorder.
  • 22 per cent had relatives diagnosed with other mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Partners in research:
This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

Related links:
•    Cited study
•    Concordia Department of Psychology
•    Centre for Research in Human Development
•    AMI-Québec
•    University of British Columbia

Media contact:
Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins
Senior advisor, external communications
Concordia University
Phone: 514-848-2424, ext. 5068

Back to top Back to top

© Concordia University