Among the many long-standing inequalities and hidden needs highlighted by the pandemic, the strain on people caring for others in an unpaid capacity has come to the fore.
Today we’re urging the Welsh government to ensure its National Carers Strategy takes account of the enormous impact of Covid-19 on the mental health of carers and that it reaches and provides choice and access to talking therapies to many more carers experiencing emotional distress.
It’s estimated since the start of the pandemic there’s been a 50% increase in the numbers of people providing unpaid care in the UK.
The charity Carers UK reports a combination of factors, including gaps left by reduction and withdrawal of support and care services, has led to a further 4.5 million taking on informal caring of family members, partners, and friends.
Often this work is undertaken without realisation it’s recognised as caring and that dedicated support may be available.
Demands made on a person’s time by caring responsibilities – often juggling these with paid work and other responsibilities – leaves little time to consider their own needs or to seek support.
The nature of the caring role means that often self-care is sacrificed and physical and emotional burn-out are commonplace.
We'd like to see increased investment in counselling services within third sector organisations that work with carers to remove barriers to mental health support and ensure it's accessible and understanding of carers' needs.
This week, Scottish Government has launched a new package of support for unpaid carers to provide counselling and befriending services, and we'd like to see more initiatives of this kind across the UK.
Swansea Carers Centre’s counselling service is offered as part of a suite of services for carers. The centre provides a model of support that has different points of entry for people seeking help.
Carers UK reports that during the pandemic more than a quarter of carers reported struggling to make ends meet and 11% said they were worried about debt.
Benefits advice is a central offer of the Swansea Carers Centre, addressing the most pressing and basic needs of many – to be able to afford to live.
Many clients of the counselling service hadn’t considered the emotional strain they were under until they were able to get help with finances and benefits.
Christine Nutt, a counsellor at Swansea Carers Centre counselling service, describes the plight of carers during the pandemic lockdown, cut off from previous services and unable to access new opportunities, as being stuck in a no man’s land.
Isolated, fearful and with diminished hope of respite, many also now fear that alongside the immediate interruptions to formal care, the pandemic may be used to justify long-term reduction and further cuts to support services.
Christine said: “There has been enormous anxiety among carers. They’ve been fearful about the virus and the risk they themselves might pose to the person they care for.
“They’re accepting of reductions in support services, believing that the less contact they have with others, the safer the person they care for will be.
“The pay-off for this is increased isolation, more caring responsibilities and greatly heightened anxiety and depression."
Like many counselling services, the lockdown in March 2020 led to Swansea Carers Centre switching its sessions to remote working, offering telephone and online therapy.
While this worked well with existing clients, Christine’s experience was that it was difficult working with new clients and she was also acutely aware of the significance of the secure space and respite clients have when they come to the centre’s therapy rooms.
“It’s difficult and sometimes impossible for people to find a confidential space at home if the person they care for is with them,” Christine said.
“It’s also really important that clients can speak with absolute honesty and freedom about how they’re feeling – the confidentiality, safe and secure space that is vital for all therapy can have particular significance for carers who have so little time dedicated to focussing on their own needs.”
The Welsh government has identified core themes of prevention and early intervention in its draft National Carers Strategy.
It has prioritised identifying greater numbers of carers and providing the right information, advice and assistance that enables people to continue, not only with their caring role, but also supports life alongside caring that encourages education and employment.
With 64% of carers experiencing a worsening of their mental health during the Covid-19 lockdown and increasing numbers of people taking on caring roles, it’s vital support such as that offered by the Swansea Carers Centre counselling service is made available and accessible.
In our response to the Welsh government’s Carers’ Strategy consultation, we're calling for:
- Make funding available to support carers services to increase the availability and choice of talking therapies, supporting the mental health of carers, like investment announced recently by the Scottish government.
- Continue to recognise and research on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of carers from all communities in Wales.
- Effectively deliver information about support for carers, including explanation of the 'carer' role, and support for mental health needs. This must include systematic delivery as part of discharge from secondary care services.
UNIDOP: Counselling's vital role for care workers
Our student member Susan Aston shares her insights into the emotional pressures experienced by care staff
Counselling the carers
Open article: Danuta Lipinska considers how counselling can help carers of people with dementia cope in often overwhelming circumstances. Healthcare Counselling and Psychotherapy Journal, April 2016
Counselling in care homes
A study looking at how counselling could be integrated in care homes