Caregiving can be stressful and tiring, and some people experience depression as a result. Treatment can involve medication, talk therapy, and self-care strategies.
Depression can result from the intense demands of taking care of someone who cannot carry out their usual daily activities. The demands of a caregiving role can cause stress and take a toll on a person’s health, employment, and family relationships.
If a person is experiencing depression, it is important that they consult a doctor and discuss treatment options. People can also implement coping strategies such as scheduling time to do something pleasurable, sharing feelings with a support network, and taking care of their physical health.
Read on to learn about the reasons that underlie caregiver depression, the symptoms, the self-care measures a person can take, treatment, and more. This article also includes the personal story of Elizabeth Irias, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and mother of a child with disabilities.
The demands of caregiving can be all-consuming. When caring for others, people may not have the time or energy to properly care for themselves. This may lead to:
- lack of sleep
- employment problems
- less time with other family members
- increased family conflict
- less time for enjoyable activities
Additionally, a caregiver may feel distressed about the challenges the person in their care is experiencing,
- safety concerns
- medication problems
- urinary and bowel incontinence
- the gradual disappearance of personality
- pain and health difficulties
- upcoming death, in some cases
Elizabeth’s story: Caregiving’s effect on daily life
“Caregiving has most affected my relationships and my self-care. It can be nearly impossible to find time for myself with unending doctor appointments, calls to the insurance company, trips to the pharmacy, middle-of-the-night crises, etc.
Since becoming a caregiver, my life is unrecognizable compared to what it was five years ago. I’ve learned that it is all about adaptation — learning (often the hard way) about when to dig in and when to let go, and how to consistently do my best to roll with the punches and give myself grace.
I’m grateful to have a flexible job, and regularly acknowledge how difficult it is to be a caregiver and maintain any semblance of normalcy with regard to work; I’ve missed innumerable hours of work.”
Caregiver depression is not uncommon.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, about 20% of family caregivers experience depression. This is about twice the rate of depression in the general population.
Among caregivers for people with certain health conditions, the rate can be higher.
For example, a small 2018 study with 117 participants found that about
Similarly, a 2022 study involving 226 caregivers for people with dementia found that about 60% of caregivers had depression at the start of the study. Five years later, about 60% still had minor depression symptoms, while 32% had increased symptoms.
Elizabeth’s story: Connecting with other caregivers
“Being a caregiver has touched all aspects of my life — my work, my friendships, my family, my hobbies, and my health.
Caregivers often feel isolated from their support network, as many people simply don’t know how to support caregivers, and friends tend to drift away right when they need them most.
I’ve found it most helpful to intentionally invest in relationships with other parent caregivers because they just ‘get it.’ This is alongside letting go of relationships with people who couldn’t understand how caregiving had changed me and my life. Mentally and emotionally, it’s been indescribably taxing and stressful.”
- a change in eating habits, leading to unintentional weight loss or gain
- a change in sleeping patterns that results in sleeping too much or too little
- a loss of interest in activities that once brought pleasure
- thoughts of suicide or death
- a feeling that nothing a person does is good enough
- physical problems that do not respond to treatment, such as digestive issues
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
It can be difficult to find time to care for oneself, and many caregivers may not know where to start. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers the following recommendations:
- Recharge: A person should try to make time for activities they enjoy. This could involve scheduling a monthly lunch date with friends or family members.
- Notice the positives: It can help to take time to notice something good that happens during the day or week and write it down. Even if the positive is small, it can brighten an individual’s day.
- Find a support network: Talking about feelings can make a difference. This may entail sharing with friends, people in support groups, or a therapist.
Additionally, if caregivers take care of their physical health, it can benefit their mental health. Here are some ways to do this:
- Engage in regular exercise: This can take many forms, such as walking or joining an exercise class. Physical activity promotes the release of stress-relieving hormones in the body.
- Get enough sleep: Aim to get 7–9 hours of sleep per night. Also, a 30-minute nap can help a person recharge during the day. Practicing good sleep habits, such as avoiding the use of smartphones and computers before bedtime, can also help a person sleep well.
- Eat a nutritious diet: A person should try to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Good nutrition can help stabilize mood and energy levels.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol: These often make stress worse.
- Practice stress-reduction techniques: Deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation may lower stress.
Elizabeth’s story: Seeking help and giving grace
“Caregiving has really made me reevaluate my priorities, and I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries and changing plans. If we don’t feel up for a particular event, I don’t hesitate to decline.
I’m also better at asking for help. If I think someone can help reduce the family load, I ask for assistance. Caregiving takes a community, as much as you can find it.
I regularly put my hand on my chest, take a few deep breaths, and say to myself: ‘Today, in this moment, I give myself grace. I’m doing my best in a very hard situation.’ I cry when I need to cry, whether that’s alone or on the phone with a trusted friend.
I’ve never in my life encountered anything as challenging, meaningful, or heartbreaking as caregiving. I don’t know any caregivers who have it all together, and it’s easier on me when I give myself grace and patience.
I jokingly say, ‘I’ve become much friendlier with mediocrity,’ because I just can’t keep all of the plates spinning, and that’s okay. Most caregivers didn’t really ‘sign up’ for caregiving, so simply acknowledging the framework as inherently challenging makes it easier. We’re all just doing our best.”
If a person is having difficulty managing their depression symptoms, they should consult a doctor, who can recommend treatment options.
The most frequent treatment involves antidepressant medication. Doctors usually start with a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Sertraline (Zoloft) and fluoxetine (Prozac) are examples of SSRIs. These drugs increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a positive effect on mood.
A person should not stop taking an antidepressant without consulting a doctor first.
In addition to medication, treatment may include counseling from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. This is very effective in reducing depression symptoms and helping people cope with day-to-day challenges.
Aside from psychotherapy, other mental health interventions may offer a benefit.
Elizabeth’s story: Getting professional help
“As a therapist myself, I appreciate the profound impact therapy can have during stressful times. I’ve participated in both individual and group psychotherapy (I’m in a therapy group specifically for parents of disabled children), and they’ve benefited me by giving me space and time to feel how I feel and express it in safe spaces.
The sense of being understood, in and of itself, is very healing, and I’m grateful for it.”
Caregivers often put others’ needs before their own, but the demands of their role can be physically and emotionally draining. It is helpful to remember that a person cannot care for a loved one if they do not care for themselves first.
Caregiver depression may result from the many challenges involved in taking care of someone who is ill. Part of the stress caregivers may feel can stem from concerns over a loved one’s safety, personality changes, and health concerns.
Self-care measures may help a person cope and prevent depression. These may include implementing changes to address emotional and social needs and engaging in lifestyle practices that promote physical health. A person can also consult a doctor about treatment options.