Mental health of home carers worsened during pandemic – study

Home carers have been described as the forgotten healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Woman with head in hands
Woman with head in hands

The mental health of unpaid carers deteriorated more during lockdown than that of non-carers, according to a new study.

Researchers found that unpaid carers who looked after another member of their household (home carers) had poorer mental health than the general population before lockdown and that this worsened as lockdown continued.

During the first lockdown last year there was an increasing reliance on home carers, who have been described as “the forgotten healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic”, with many existing carers providing more support and other individuals taking on new caring roles as many health and social care services not related to Covid-19 were withdrawn.

The research, led by the University of Glasgow’s MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit with colleagues at the University of Essex, examined data from 9,737 adults from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (Understanding Society) to explore changes in mental health between pre-pandemic (2019) and early lockdown (April 2020), and also between early and later lockdown (April-July 2020).

While the mental health of home carers of children under 18 improved from April to July, there was a “marked worsening” in that of those caring for adult children.

Declines in mental health were particularly marked among home carers with a greater care burden or who had formal help before lockdown but then lost it.

Lead researcher Dr Elise Whitley, of the University of Glasgow, said: “Prior to the pandemic almost nine million people in the UK were providing unpaid care for an individual, most commonly a close family member, with a disability, long-term health condition, or needs related to old age.

“The withdrawal and suspension of many non-Covid-19 medical and social care services in March 2020 led to an increasing reliance on informal carers who were particularly likely to be negatively affected by Covid-19 lockdown measures.

“We found that individuals providing care for a member of their household had poorer mental health than non-carers prior to the pandemic and that this worsened as lockdown continued.

“This research shines a spotlight on the challenges facing informal carers before and during the pandemic. As restrictions on travel and hospitality are relaxed for the general population, priority should also be given to restarting and creating services that support carers and protect their mental and physical health.”

Researchers said the results clearly demonstrate that the mental health of home carers, which was already poor pre-pandemic, has been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and associated mitigation measures.

The study said: “Responses to the pandemic have largely focused on infection control but there is also growing recognition of the need to support mental health.

“Our study shows this is particularly an issue for carers and, as the pandemic continues, better policies that support the mental health of the population in general and carers in particular are required.”

The study is published in Psychological Medicine and is funded by the MRC.

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