Caregivers Think About Suicide a Lot
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because caregivers, both paid and unpaid, are dying for the cause.
By Joshua Eferighe
Linda Hoetger, 56, is an Ohio native who’s been taking care of her husband since he was was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009. He’s also diabetic. So it’s up to her to ensure he gets his daily blood sugar checks and regular cancer screenings, and to make all his appointments and keep her children in the loop about each development. She also has to absorb all the information she gets from doctors about his care.
It’s a labor of love, but it’s also a full-time job — one that doesn’t pay and is now costing her a good night’s sleep. As a caregiver, she has “battled with insomnia, a lot of times not taking care of my mental health.”
Dr. Anthony Back, 60, an oncology specialist at the University of Washington, has learned the importance of balancing the mental tolls of the health care system. He’s lost a close colleague to suicide and says he has “definitely had my reckoning with what it’s like to have so many patients die.” He’s taken up meditation, takes all of his vacations and reminds himself that he cannot be a hero. Doctor culture dictates that “you’re never supposed to say you’re weak or hurting,” he says.
Hoetger and Back are far from alone in feeling the squeeze as health care providers. From medical professionals who practice at major hospitals to unpaid caregivers tending to the needs of loved ones and neighbors, mental pressures were already high. And then along came COVID.
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention draws a stark picture for family caregiving. A survey of 5,400 participants conducted in late June 2020 found that:
30 percent of unpaid caregivers had seriously considered suicide in the previous month.
While suicidal ideation in the U.S. had already been peaking — respondents reported similar experiences in 2018, rising from 4.3 to 10.7 percent in a 12-month span — it was unpaid caregivers who had higher incidences of adverse mental and behavioral health conditions compared to other participants.
Even well-paid professional health care providers are suffering. A recent survey by Sermo (an online community of more than 800,000 anonymous health care professionals) of 4,500 doctors found that one in three say they know a colleague who has died by suicide, and 400 physicians are lost every year to suicide The study also showed that the majority of doctors fear they would suffer workplace repercussions if they sought help for suicidal thoughts or burnout.
Mike Devlin and Justin Kovarsy, creative directors at health care agency FCB Health New York, partnered with Sermo on an initiative called “Disappearing Doctors,” which aims to provide a safe space to the medical community. It wasn’t until hearing doctors firsthand that they realized how serious the problem was. Other programs have emerged to help address the issue, but the problem persists. So Devlin and Kovarsy are now trying to “bring some of these resources together and create new safe spaces for doctors to be able to experience that kind of openness,” Kovarsy says.
Unpaid caregivers need help outlets as well. Alexandra Drane offers a similar approach for them with ARCHANGELS, a platform she co-founded that offers a way for them to be seen, heard, honored and supported. “Research on its own doesn’t change lives,” she says, “but there are things we can do to support [caregivers],” she adds.
Safe places are part of the first plan of action. Caretakers often feel uncomfortable — citing stigma or fear of appearing weak — talking about their mental health, and these spaces provide much-needed assistance.
Vincent Nelson, Blue Cross Blue Shield’s interim chief medical officer, points to the serious health ramifications for caregivers of all ages. Having looked at individuals ages 22–64, they “found caregivers of all ages are more impacted by stress-related physical and behavioral health conditions,” Nelson says.
So how can carers protect themselves? Safe spaces like ARCHANGELS offer outlets for discussion. Wellness apps can also help, but such technology, Nelson warns, “should be part of a larger solution that involves a more comprehensive treatment plan built around virtual care services, tele-health and in-person medical consultation.” The one plus for caregivers when it comes to health? They seek preventative care “at a greater rate than the benchmark population,” Nelson says, noting that they had wellness visits at a rate 26 percent higher than the rest of the population.
And what can you do to help? “The most important thing to do is love on those caregivers,” Drane says. “Tell them we see you, you are not alone, thank you so much.”