Caring alongside depression
With 55% of us stating that we suffer from depression, as a result of our caring role, we've explored the impacts caring is having on us. And ways we can look after ourselves.
From why caring is driving up depression rates, to how we can recognise depression in ourselves, versus say, burnout.
Whether we have depression or not, there are some useful tips below for every carer who is feeling low or out of sorts right now.
Some of the topics we'll cover include:
Then, when we're ready, we might look at:
Do I have depression?
When we have the responsibility of caring on top of our own needs, we’re more likely to have days where we feel overwhelmed, low or like nothing is going right.
Of course, bad days are a natural part of being human, but when these feelings linger over weeks or months, it’s a sign that we may need to make a change.
Depression can affect people in different ways and isn’t always easy to pinpoint. Unlike sadness, it can hamper our ability to look after ourselves and the person we care for.
The important thing we need to know is that we’re not alone. Life might feel tough right now, but with the right support, we can start to feel a bit better.
In the words of the author Matt Haig:
“Depression is not ‘feeling a bit sad'”.
Anyone who has experienced a mental health condition like depression will know that sadness is the wrong word to describe it.
Depression can feel like we're stuck.
We might feel numb, empty and unable to find joy in the big and small things we love. In this state of constant low mood, everyday habits and routines feel much harder and we may feel that doing them seems less worthwhile. It can also creep up on us gradually, so we’re not aware of how it’s affecting us.
Basic tasks like getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, showering, and cooking might feel like a huge effort. We may have been feeling this way for a while, or perhaps this is a new feeling. If it’s been hard to shift, we could be suffering from depression.
It can wax and wane in intensity, and it can always be there, even when we appear to be in good spirits to other people.
As Matt Haig points out in his book, Reasons to Stay Alive (which is a Mobilise must-read) we can be happy and depressed, just as we can be a sober alcoholic.
In everyday life, this might show up as:
Feeling continually low
Sleeping a lot or very little
Having little motivation
Crying more often
Feeling anxious or on edge
Feeling more irritated than usual
Losing our appetite or eating too much
Losing our sex drive
Finding it difficult to find enjoyment in life
Struggling to get out of bed and ‘face the day’
Turning to habits, which we know may be harmful for us
If you recognise yourself, you may like to skip straight to:
Are carers more likely to experience depression?
In short, yes. Statistics from Carers UK have found that over half (55%) of people who care report that they suffer from depression as a result of their caring role.
Meanwhile, government statistics from 2021 show that nationally, one in six adults suffer from depression in the UK.
Our support, time and effort is invaluable to the person or people we care for, but it can often come at the expense of our own needs. When we’re overloaded with responsibilities, pressures and someone else’s health and happiness, we can feel like we’re constantly pouring from an empty cup.
Why are we more likely to experience depression?
There are certain things that can make depression more likely amongst carers.
These might include:
1. Workload exceeds capacity
When we're caring for someone, our workload might literally exceed our capacity - mentally and physically. With many of us being on-call for the person we care for24/7.
This might mean providing personal care throughout the night or it could mean having our phone next to us at all times, to offer emotional support when they need it.
So 24/7 support can look different for each of us. And of course, we may also have children, partners or other family to look after and some of us will have a job or career in the mix too.
2. Someone else's needs come first
We may feel we have lost the ability to meet our own needs - from choosing what TV channel we can watch, to having no time for our own hobbies or friends.
3. Cultural norms
Our family expectations may hold us back from reaching out for support or confessing that it’s all too much.
4. No praise/ reward
We may feel undervalued and under-appreciated - after all, there’s no “annual appraisal” or “gold stars” for our performance.
5. Not enough meaningful rest time
Finding time for restorative rest is key to our wellbeing, but something many carers struggle to find.
Other things that can contribute to depression for carers may include:
Lack of support from friends or family members and feeling isolated
Financial worries (read more about financial support for carers)
Feeling like our ‘best is never enough’
Feeling rushed off our feet and that things are relentless, with little time for ourselves
The health of the person we care for deteriorating
Our relationship breaking down with the person we care for
Feeling as though our caring work is a thankless task
Putting our own goals and dreams on hold
Feeling that our moods are linked to the health and happiness of the person we care for (when they’re having a bad week, we do too)
Processing a life-changing diagnosis
Caring for someone with a mental health condition
Depression can be a lonely place, and it’s okay to take it day by day. Plenty of carers have experienced depression, and they've kindly shared their small steps to feeling better.
Specific types of depression that can affect us:
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a type of cyclical depression that happens during winter, when there’s less sunlight available for our bodies to synthesise into mood-boosting vitamin D.
Dysthymia – a chronic or persistent type of depression that lasts for more than two years.
Prenatal depression – depression that women experience during their pregnancy.
Postnatal depression (PND) – depression that many parents experience after giving birth.
Depression or burnout?
If we’re feeling stretched and exhausted, it may also be a sign of carer burnout - another type of mental health issue caused by chronic, long-term stress.
It feels like ‘hitting a wall’ and is usually remedied by reducing stress and taking a break to recover. Of course, this is easier than said. Our guide to getting respite may be a good starting point.
Depression is different. It’s a spectrum, which means it can differ in intensity for different people, or at different times in our lives. In mild cases, we may feel a bit low for a while, and find it harder to get up and go, but we’re still able to get on with our caring duties as usual.
If we’re really struggling, it can interfere with our ability to care. And in serious cases, the extreme sense of hopelessness can trigger us to have thoughts of ending our own life.
When we feel we’re out of options, it’s important to know that there’s always help out there available to us - even if the deep sadness we're experiencing feels like it'll never go away.
Where to go for urgent help with depression?
1. Contact the Samaritans
Samaritans is a free 24/7 phone line that’s open every day of the year on 116 123. If we don’t feel up to talking over the phone, we can email firstname.lastname@example.org for support and advice. A response may take a few days by email, so we should call if we need an immediate reply.
2. Speak to our GP
We may not have had the best experiences with our GP. But registering as a carer with them (simply by requesting a Carers Registration form) can help us explore the support and treatment options available to us. We can either choose to speak to our GP in person, or online.
Some GP surgeries have dedicated mental health practitioners who it's often more helpful to get an appointment with. Our local mental health services accept self-referrals which may give us quicker access to treatment. We can explore our options on the NHS website.
3. Call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK
The National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK offers a non-judgemental listening service to anyone struggling with their mental health. We can contact them on 0800 689 5652 (6pm–3:30am every day).
4. Text Shout
Shout is a confidential 24/7 text service providing crisis support. We can text them on 85258.
“Depression is smaller than you. It's always smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you. You don't operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but if that's the metaphor, you are the sky. You were there before it and the cloud can't exist without the sky. But the sky can exist without the cloud”. - Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.
How can we feel better, alongside caring?
It can feel frustrating (and exhausting) to realise that the responsibility for making changes to feel better, lies with us. After all, much of the reason we feel like this will be due to the demands of the caring role and the need for more support - things other people control and which impact us.
But as carers, we often have to focus on what we can control. It’s sometimes the only power we feel able to influence.
With this in mind, here are some suggestions for what we might want to do next:
1. Make the most of what GPs can offer
A registered GP can assess and diagnose depression. They’ll ask us about our symptoms, lifestyle and medical history to determine the most appropriate treatment.
They may prescribe medications to treat our mental health or refer us to mental health specialists such as psychiatrists or social workers. Medications such as anti-depressants can take up to six weeks before we see an improvement.
GPs can also provide counselling and therapy such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), or psychoanalytic therapy.
There are also online self-help courses and groups that our GP may refer us to.
“I was surprised that the GP offered me anti-depressants on my first appointment. That’s fine, but it’s also OK to just talk, think on things and maybe try therapy first or as well. As long as you’ve started the conversation, that’s the important part.” - Unpaid carer in the Mobilise Community
2. Self-refer to mental health treatment
We may want to self-refer ourselves to mental health specialists, such as mental health practitioners or social workers. As we mentioned earlier in this blog, we can explore our local options on the NHS website.
“It was really easy to refer myself for CBT therapy with the NHS. The wait was about 6 weeks - much quicker than I expected - although any wait, is not ideal!” - Unpaid carer in the Mobilise Community
3. Talk to family and friends that we trust
Letting others know how down we feel might not be the first thing we want to do right now. But letting others know that it's tough can provide a sense of emotional relief.
Our friends and family can (hopefully) empathise with what we’re going through and may be able to offer practical advice or support that can help. We might want to explore setting up a caring circle, to structure a wider support network for sharing the care with family and friends, going forward.
Unfortunately, not all of us may be comfortable with sharing our problems with friends, or may not have a close circle we can confide in. In this case, it's good to remember there's always professional support available for us too.
“If you don’t feel better for sharing with your friend, don’t assume it’s you. Not everyone is a good listener. Don’t be put off from trying again. The best friend for this, is someone who can listen, stay quiet, give you a hug and pop the kettle on for you.” - Unpaid carer in the Mobilise Community
If talking is difficult for us, many carers have used online peer support to "get things" off their chest. Often that can be the first step to feeling a tiny bit better and having some room to breathe. We often see "I feel better for venting" in our online community.
4. Consider a therapist
If we can afford it, we could look at speaking to a therapist. Therapy provides a safe and confidential space where we can discuss our concerns and feelings without fear of judgement or criticism.
Our guide includes some funding options for therapy too.
We also love Self Space, which is bringing therapy to the High Street.
5. Join a support group
Groups can provide guidance, support, and insights that can help us to better understand our thoughts and behaviours. The charity Mind has a search function so we can find local peer support.
Join other carers on our Mobilise Cuppas - a free 45 min video call where you can connect with around 12 other people who are also looking after a family member or friend.
Or join us over in the Mobilise Community for online peer support with other carers.
A word of caution. Not all support is “good” support. So we've created a list of what "good" peer support should feel like.
6. Speak to work
If we’re working in a job and caring at the same time, we may need to be signed off sick for a period of time. We should call the GP surgery and explain that we need to discuss our mental health.
If our GP determines that we need time off work, they will issue us with a sick note. This will detail the length of time we’re advised to take off work. We must provide our employer with a copy of the sick note and keep them updated on how we’re feeling during our absence. Find out more about balancing work and care, including legal rights.
7. Ask for an assessment
A Carer’s Assessment is a series of conversations about our caring role and helps the council identify areas where they can help us. It ensures we get all the help we require. If our mental health situation has changed, we may need more assistance, so it’s worth getting reassessed.
Meanwhile, a care needs assessment is for the person we look after. A social worker or healthcare professional will assess their needs and abilities. Our local council will then review their care and may step in with extra support.
If we’re unsure of our rights, we can always refresh our knowledge.
8. Do less, and lighten the load
There’s a lot of pressure to be ‘the best carer’. We may be overloading ourselves more than we need to. This can add to our low mood. While we’re getting back on our feet, we should give ourselves permission to miss the odd social occasion, after-school club, or activity. If we spread ourselves too thinly, we may run into burnout mode.
“Learn to take one day at a time, I know it's a corny old line but it helps, get up in the morning thinking only of what you've got to do that day, if you look to much at the days stretching out in front of you it can over whelm you.” - Unpaid Carer in the Mobilise Community
9. Visualise what we want and how we want to feel
It can be difficult to stay positive if the person we care for is in a bad mood. Mindset tools like NLP and visualisation can be helpful to explore, as they can help us to protect our energy.
Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a psychological approach to positively changing our thoughts and behaviours. With NLP, we reframe the way we think about a situation, in order to shift our perspective and create new beliefs.
For example, if we feel we’re soaking up someone else’ bad vibes, we can start the day by visualising a bright bubble around us, protecting us from negativity. Breathe deeply and take some time to watch the bubble grow stronger and brighter. Really see it and feel it in your mind's eye.
As we interact with the person we care for, we can imagine their comments bouncing off our bubble, keeping us protected. There are lots of tutorials online for using NLP to change our thinking.
Lots of our carers also find that setting daily intentions helps. You're visualising how you would like the day to go.
Some examples of intentions include:
"Today, I will be kind to myself and others."
"Today, I will nourish my body with healthy food."
"Today, I will be patient.”
We may also find journaling useful.
10. Try micro-respite
If we only have a few minutes to focus on our own self-care, we could try micro-respite techniques - small moments of replenishment that we can build into our day.
Small changes we can make in our day-to-day
There are some small lifestyle changes that can really help us to feel better each day. These are no solutions to depression, but may be helpful alongside professional support. All have been recommended by other carers in our Mobilise Community.
1. Write a ‘now’ and ‘next’ list, to help manage feelings of overwhelm
“Write a ‘now and next’ list. I’m going to weed the garden for 30 mins then have a cuppa. Then whilst having your cuppa, you do your next ‘now and next’. E.g. I’m going to put the washing on and clean the bathroom while it washes. It breaks the day into manageable achievable chunks.”
2. Drink (the right) fluids
"I get such a headache if I don't think enough water - I get in such a bad mood and feel like crying. On a good day I remember that a quick glass of water by the sink can make me feel much better"
Dehydration can have a negative effect on our mood, mental cognition and physical health, which can further exacerbate the symptoms of depression. Aim to drink around 6-8 glasses of water per day and limit alcohol (which is a depressant itself). Alcohol gives us an initial boost in serotonin and dopamine (which feels good), but will leave us deficient the next day, which may exasperate existing low feelings.
3. Get outside for a walk and enjoy nature
"I can't always get outside, on those days I'll sit in the window and watch the birds. It's very relaxing."
Getting outdoors can increase endorphins, which are natural ‘feel good’ chemicals that can improve our mood. While being in natural environments like local parks or the garden is shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase our feelings of purpose and motivation.
Plus, exposure to natural sunlight also helps the body to produce vitamin D - low levels of which have been linked to depression.
4. Open the curtains and make the bed
“Make your bed as soon as you get up. It sounds trivial but if your mojo has gone and you can’t get much done at least going back to a beautifully made bed at the end of the day makes you feel you’ve achieved something.”
Simple tasks can work wonders for our mindset. It feels good to ‘get stuff done’ early on in the day, like we’ve already ticked something off our list.
5. Try to get enough sleep
"I have fully embraced 'nanna naps' as my family call them. 20 mins when my Mum is also napping after lunch. I fall into a deep sleep, surprisingly refreshing, and it gets me through the rest of the day."
Don't shoot the messenger! We know that good sleep isn’t always in our control. However, as sleep deprivation can worsen our mood, distort our thinking and lead to further feelings of sadness and hopelessness - it's worth mentioning. How could we get more rest? From nanna naps like the carer above, to booking a night off if we can rope someone into help us.
6. Try practicing gratitude
"I like to use my dog walk to list things I'm grateful for. It stops my mind drifting off to 'to do lists' or fictional arguments I might have about getting more support! I start with being grateful for being on the walk, then it might be the sunshine, living somewhere safe, my hot shower and so on. It feels really good".
Expressing gratitude has been shown to increase positive emotions. Try jotting down three things to be thankful for each day and see how it makes you feel. It takes practise, but many carers love using this tool.
“For me it's three things, a playlist, my earphones and a book - those are my saving grace. Even if I am awake at 3 am I shall use that hour to detach myself from my caring role and take time for me. When things get hard and I wanna walk away I write in a journal. On my phone I have a diary app and I put in how I feel, and how I'm struggling. It really helps me to offload negative feelings and forgive myself if I'm not the best carer for my husband.”
Journaling is a powerful way for us to have honest conversations with ourselves, about the way we feel, and how we want to approach things. It can force us to self-reflect on things that happened a few days ago, and serve as a healthy outlet for us to offload our emotions.
What to do if we can no longer cope with caring
It’s understandable that it can get too much for us to handle. If we’ve explored all our options, have received treatment from our GP (and given it enough time) but still feel we can no longer provide care, we can take look at other things we can consider.
Remember, our rights as carers state that there is no legal obligation to care. Of course, we know it's not as simple as this, but important to understand the legal position.
If we absolutely cannot care anymore, we need to tell our local council as soon as possible. This is especially important if the situation is urgent and we have lost our ability to provide care.
The council will carry out a Carer's Assessment, also called an Adult Carer Support Plan in Scotland, to review if we are able to continue in our role. They will assist in getting us help and support for our care needs.
If we need emergency support, there are lots of options available with qualified people we can speak to, for free, at any time of the day. These links may also be useful:
The bottom line
The positive news is that with the right support and treatment, most people make a full recovery from depression. We hope this blog has been useful for any of us that are struggling right now, or for those who may not have realised all that’s going on for us.
Please remember that the Mobilise team and community are here for you.
If you have specific carer tips for dealing with depression, we’d love to hear from you. Make sure to leave your tips in the Mobilise Community.
You can also join our next online Cuppa for a friendly chat with other carers. We run these several times per week - check out our latest timetable and simply pick a date that suits you.