All families with a mentally ill member as well as caregivers need help, say researchers at Case Western Reserve University.
Co-investigator M. Jane Suresky wondered if a previous study of women caregivers of mentally ill family members missed important information about their other family members. Previous studies missed understanding the level of a caregiver’s guilt and shame, and the impact of mental illness on family function. Researchers have reported that shame can prevent families from seeking professional help. She recommended that data from a 2008 Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing study of female caregivers of people with mental illness be re-examined.
The 60 study participants were between ages 23 to 65. The participants cared for family members with panic disorder (3 percent), depression (8 percent), schizophrenia (45 percent), or bipolar disorder (45 percent). “We were so focused the first time on the women family member that we missed the impact of the illness on the family,” Suresky said.
The follow-up study examined risk factors such as caregiver strain, client dependence, and stigma, vulnerability due to type of diagnosis and time since diagnosis, and protective factors such as resourcefulness. This information was correlated to how well a family is able to function. The amount of time that passed since the diagnosis of mental illness did not affect family dysfunction. A diagnosis of depressive disorder had a stronger association with family disruption than a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Factors that contributed to greater family disruption were caregiver strain, stigma by association, and the dependence level of the mentally ill family member. Families functioned better when caregivers were resourceful and were consistent and logical. Life was also easier for the family when the family supported the caregiver.
Families with members who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression are on often on alert for potential suicide risk and had the greatest level of family turmoil. Families with members who were diagnosed with schizophrenia had less strain and stress over time as the family learned to cope with the illness. Cohesive families who function well provide greater support for caregivers, while families whose caregivers had little family support were dysfunctional. They felt more strain, the stigma of having a family member with mental illness, the dependence of the mentally ill person on the primary caregiver.