Caregiver Burnout When Helping Someone with a Mental Illness

November 26, 2020 Nicola Spendlove

Caregiver burnout is a very real phenomenon when supporting someone with mental illness. In my experience, caregiver stress and compassion fatigue arise as a result of putting your own needs to the bottom of your list on a consistent basis. I've experienced caregiver burnout on many occasions when supporting my brother with his mental illness -- and if I'm very honest, I'm experiencing it again right now.

An Analogy for Caregiver Burnout

Let me give you an analogy for caregiver burnout. My trusty old car has been on the road for 12 years now, and it's starting to give me trouble. The "check engine" light flashes regularly, and I've become very good at ignoring it -- convincing myself that this particular journey is too important to delay and that I'll bring it to a mechanic sometime soon.

Last month, my car broke down and had to go into the shop for four whole days, leaving me utterly lost. Had I taken the "check engine" light seriously, I wouldn't have been in that situation. The same is often true of the first signs of caregiver burnout.

Causes of Caregiver Burnout

I don't know about you, but I have a habit of disregarding the early symptoms of caregiver burnout. There's kind of a badge of honor associated with "powering through," and it makes me feel weak when I admit that I need to take some time to prioritize my self-care needs.

I consistently ignore my body's "check engine" signals, covering them up with a can-do attitude and copious amounts of coffee. I tell myself that I'll support my brother through this particular incident, then I'll do everything my workplace needs me to do, then I'll meet my responsibilities to my household, and once all that is done, I'll make it my business to take care of myself.

The thing about that attitude is the list of things that I need to do before looking after myself has a tendency to grow. It grows and grows until, eventually, my body screams "stop" and takes me out of action for an extended period -- this is caregiver burnout.

Preventing Caregiver Burnout

I guess what I'm trying to say is, get to know what your "check engine" signs are and stop glamorizing the idea of ignoring them. Find out what works for you in terms of self-care and put it higher on your priority list. Caregiver burnout doesn't happen overnight; it sneaks up when you refuse to honor your needs.

One day (probably very soon), my dear old car will break down completely, and that will be inconvenient, but I will suck it up and get a new one. If my body breaks down completely, I don't have that option -- and neither do you.

Caregivers, how are you really feeling at the moment? Has anyone else been ignoring the first signs of caregiver burnout? Tell me how you're doing in the comments.

APA Reference
Spendlove, N. (2020, November 26). Caregiver Burnout When Helping Someone with a Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Author: Nicola Spendlove

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