Caregivers spotlight: 'It takes a village to take care of a person with a mental health condition'
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown mental health issues into sharp relief. With an increased awareness of mental health conditions in recent years, there are now more campaigns that focus on supporting people with mental health struggles. Despite that, existing campaigns are often focused on how to better support the afflicted, but not the caregivers.
A group of final year students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) realises that there is still a lack of support for caregivers, who are often thrown into their roles without prior knowledge and preparation on how to best take care of their wards.
Partnering with the Institute of Mental Health and Caregivers Alliance Limited, these students launched Prepare to Care, a campaign that encourages caregivers to better prepare themselves mentally when caring for youth aged 7-19 years old with mental health illnesses. They also hope to normalise help-seeking behaviours and equip caregivers with useful and practical tips to integrate into their caregiving journey.
We reached out to the WKWSCI student representative, Esther Lim, and two caregivers regarding the campaign and their journeys, as well as tips for new caregivers.
“My caregiver journey began when my mother was suffering from anxiety disorder and depression in 2012. In 2016, my youngest son was also diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, and my father has been suffering from dementia since 2020,” caregiver Cheryl Fong shared.
“I was not prepared for it initially as I was caught off guard and could not believe that my family members would suffer from mental illnesses one after another. I was stressed when I had no knowledge and experience as a caregiver for mentally ill family members.”
Another caregiver, Prashant Pundrik, who became a caregiver for his daughter who struggled with depression, echoed similar sentiments. “I was not at all prepared for it (being a caregiver) in the beginning. I didn’t even fully understand what challenges my loved one was going through.”
Through in-depth interviews with these caregivers and experts in the field, the students found that “some caregivers felt isolated from their peers and family members who had a hard time understanding and accepting their loved one's mental health conditions.” Caregivers not only face stress in caring for their loved ones, but also suffer in silence with burnout and other mental health issues.
“In my opinion, not only is there a lack of understanding and empathy towards caregivers, but also a lack of attention on the challenges that they face,” Lim shared.
For many new caregivers, they lack the knowledge and skills for the duties thrusted upon them, which eventually leads to feelings of helplessness.
“My initial perception was that I would need to take my loved one to the doctor and ensure that she took medication on time,” Pundrik said. “But later, I realised that I would need to handhold her a lot more through her recovery journey. That meant I would need to have deep understanding of depression, change the way I communicated and handhold my loved one every step along the way.”
For Fong, who cares for three of her family members with different mental conditions, being a caregiver not only affected her mentally but also physically due to the lack of rest.
“It was quite overwhelming, and I faced a lot of stress besides having challenges in my daily life and at work,” she let on. “There were times that I was feeling lost and did not know what to say and how to help them. I was also constantly in fear thinking about what will happen to them if they choose to end their life. I did not have quality sleep in the initial part, especially since I was afraid of losing my loved ones.”
Thankfully, both he and Fong were introduced to Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL), a non-profit organization in Singapore dedicated to meeting the needs of caregivers of persons with mental health issues.
“I attended their 12 weeks’ caregivers' course and it equipped me better in the knowledge of effective caregiving, communication, how to manage a crisis when it happened and many more. Whenever I am in doubt and need support, I will also contact my caregiver trainer to seek advice from her and learn from her experience. By seeking help and support, I can talk about my feelings instead of keeping to myself and suffering in silence,” Fong shared.
Caring for young family members with mental health conditions can be a 24-hour duty. As caregivers, setting time aside for self-care becomes an essential part of life.
Pundrik makes socialising and meeting friends a regular part of his life as it “helps me unwind and is a welcome change from the daily routine.”
Exercising, regular date nights with her husband, volunteering at faith organisations and communities after work are part of Fong’s self-care routine.
Giving back by being a volunteer caregiver trainer with CAL is also what both of them are doing as part of their self-care routine. “I decided to help other caregivers to give them hope and courage to live on by sharing my experience,” Fong said.
Lastly, Pundrik and Fong have some tips for new caregivers.
“Gather as much knowledge as possible about your loved one’s condition. Put together a support system of family, trusted friends and well-wishers. Caregiving requires a lot of time, effort and energy. You will find it difficult to manage all by yourself,” Pundrik advised. “Even better, enrol for the free training course offered by Caregivers Alliance.”
“Being a caregiver is a lifelong journey and there will be challenges arising along the way,” Fong shared. Being able to stay positive while taking care of loved ones, continuing to lead a life while pursuing your dreams, and engaging in dialogues are some of the tips she has to give to new caregivers.
As Pundrik shared, “It takes a village to take care of a person with a mental health condition.”