With estimates suggesting that 40% of carers are at risk of depression or anxiety, GPs and the wider healthcare system need to ensure that protecting carers’ mental health is a priority.
Being a carer is tough. That may be a trite cliché, but, as is often the case, it is a cliché based on reality. The pressures, fears and emotional strain of caring for a loved one can be huge. And, for many carers, the job is getting harder as cutbacks to social care services and welfare benefits continue to bite.
So it was no real surprise when the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) revealed at the weekend [www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22478706]that carers are at greater risk of developing depression or anxiety than people in the general population.
The RCGP estimates that about 40% of carers are thought to be at risk of depression or stress because of their caring role. In the general population, about 1 in 4 people have a problem with their mental health at any one time.
Given that about 7 million people in the UK are said to be caring for a sick or disabled child or adult – and a significant percentage of those will be caring for someone with a learning disability – then it is clear that millions of people could be affected.
But all too frequently the health – physical and mental – of carers is neglected. Often carers are so focused on their own caring responsibilities that they neglect to keep themselves well.
Plus, it can be difficult to ask for help – some people see it as a sign of weakness or that they are not coping.
This is where GPs come in. They are often the first port of call for carers and so they need to be able to spot if there is an issue and offer relevant and timely support.
The RCGP has said more should be done, including screening carers for signs of depression through "a small number of general, non-invasive, questions about mood and mental wellbeing". Sounds like a very sensible idea.
In addition, the new clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have to ensure that depression and anxiety services for carers are prioritised in their areas. The RCGP has drawn up a list for CCGs to take into account, and they should act on its recommendations.
But in these austere times, the human argument only seems to carry so much weight: you have to mention the magic words ‘cost savings’ for people in power to take real notice.
So, here goes: it is said that carers save the UK economy £119 billion per year, according to Carers UK. While figures like that sometimes have to be taken with a pinch of salt, the savings made are undoubtedly huge: care at home is usually much cheaper than residential care, which is often the alternative option.
Therefore, spending money on ensuring that carers are mentally fit should be seen as an investment because it will allow them to keep on caring, and keep on saving money for the UK economy.
I think that covers it – and difficult to argue against, in my opinion. Now, prioritising spending just needs to happen – it must do: the value of carers to the social care system, the economy and, most importantly, the people they care for, is simply too huge to be put at risk.