Family caregivers - Unsung heroes in mental health care

An important link in the mental health care chain that often goes unrecognized is the role of family members as caregivers.

In many cases, family members play the primary role in caring for a loved one with a mental illness. They spend huge amounts of time and energy advocating on behalf of their loved one, seeking services and also very often go to large personal expense and take on debt to carry out care, treatment and support.

This service is invaluable – without these dedicated family members, many people would sadly fall through the cracks in our care delivery system.

In the recent senate committee report on the state of the mental health care system in Canada, one chapter was devoted to a study of family caregivers. Many individuals were interviewed and shared their concerns, frustrations and ideas for improving mental health care in our country.

The report found that, “…many caregivers feel excluded, ignored by the mental health, mental illness and addiction system in Canada.” An unfortunate and unacceptable state of affairs considering these same people are the ones providing care and support to those living with mental illness.

Concerns of family caregivers often echoed those shared by mental health care consumers themselves and caregivers listed lack of information about available services and long waiting lists as roadblocks to receiving adequate care.

One caregiver expressed outrage that once an appropriate service is located there is often a waiting list of almost a year, a wait that would be unacceptable in most cases of physical illness or injury but is commonplace in the mental health care system.

Caring for a family member with a mental illness brings with it much of the same fear, doubt and stress that occurs when there is a serious physical illness to deal with and there is very often a noticeable strain and impact on families.

Often caregivers develop chronic illnesses of their own after living under this extreme stress for extended periods of time. Emotional and physical burn out are also common for family caregivers who receive little or no outside support.

This need for support was highlighted in the senate report. Family caregivers need and want support from health care professionals and peer support groups. Some such groups are available – including a group for family of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease through the Alzheimer Society of BC and a group for family of those with schizophrenia through the BC Schizophrenia Society. An excellent resource for those in the Kelowna area can be found at This is a document about accessing services and support in the region.

However, more such groups are needed and they also need to be more visible within the mental health care system so that family members are aware of them and can access them when needed.

Respite is also a service that family caregivers need so that they can take breaks sometimes to recharge and avoid burning out or getting ill themselves.

Along with the need for support, family caregivers identified a desire to be recognized by the health care system and to be more included and involved in the formal aspect of care. This is something that needs to be addressed while still protecting the rights of individual patients.

Many times patients are willing to include their family members in treatment and meetings with health care professionals if they are encouraged or invited to do so.

Although it takes extra time for physicians to see family members in addition to the patient, it is often well worthwhile in the long run as family can often provide information to care providers that is very useful.

If the patient does not want to include them, family may still provide information to the health care providers as long as they understand that it will not be possible for the care provider to respond. This information can still be very useful in helping with care.

For all you family caregivers who are spending so much of your time and energy helping your loved ones… thank you. You truly are doing more good than you can imagine and you deserve all the support we can give you.


Current Studies

 Alzheimer's Disease 


 Parkinson's Disease





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