Informal care-giving and mental health

New research shows that for women in particular, informal care-giving responsibilities can affect mental wellbeing.

Informal care-giving is a large and important part of the UK’s social care sector; currently one in 10 (approximately 7 million) people are engaged in informal care-giving and this is projected to increase to over 10 million by 2030. Providing informal care can be a physical and mental burden. It can place financial demands on a household, change a caregiver’s employment status, or restrict their interactions with their social network. This burden has a negative effect on health. While this effect is well recognised, the patterns of informal care-giving and its effect on psychological health over time are less well known.

In a new study published in the Journal of Psychological Medicine, researchers Rebecca Lacey, Anne McMunn and Elizabeth Webb used data from Understanding Society to explore these patterns.

What is 'psychological distress'? 

Understanding Society asks participants about their mental wellbeing including whether they have had recent lack of sleep, difficulties in concentrating, whether they feel overwelmed or under strain and whether they are having problems in making decisions. These are indicators that someone is suffering from psychological distress. 

Key findings

  • Women are more likely than men to be providers of informal care and also to be care-giving over longer periods of time.
  • Women are also more likely to be primary care-givers than men, and to undertake more onerous care-giving responsibilities, such as caring for people with more complex care needs.
  • Women carers experience higher levels of psychological distress than men and women who are not care-givers.
  • The symptoms of distress men with caring responsibilites report remain the same across different care-giving patterns - whether they are long-term care-givers or provide occasional care.
  • Women who are engaged in long-term care-giving of three years or more, or who are intermittent care-givers, display more symptoms of psychological distress than women who are not care-givers. In particular, starting to give informal care can have an impact on mental wellbeing. 
  • Psychological distress appears not to increase over time for long-term informal caregiving men or women.

Why does this matter?

Given the increased risk of psychological distress for people providing informal care and the growth in the number of people providing care of this type, it is important that informal care-givers are given adequate support to carry out their role. The researchers suggest that improving the mental wellbeing of informal carers should be a key public health priority. 

How was Understanding Society used?

The researchers used data from the self-completed General Health Questionnaire on over 9,000 adults in Waves 1–7 of Understanding Society, in which participants were asked to report recent lack of sleep, inability to concentrate, problems in decision-making, strain and feeling overwhelmed, amongst other symptoms of psychological distress. They then analysed these in relation to the number and types of care-giving provided by participants to assess the relationship between the two.

Read the research here.