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Carers Week: How can we support unpaid carers around the risk of suicide?

Carers Week, which falls in June, is an annual campaign to raise awareness of caring, highlight the challenges unpaid carers face and recognise the huge contributions they make to families and communities throughout the UK.

It also helps people who don’t think of themselves as having caring responsibilities to identify as carers and access much-needed support.  

Our CEO Rachael talks about the importance of suicide prevention for unpaid carers.

Who is an unpaid carer?

A carer is someone who provides unpaid care and support to a family member or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health condition, addiction, or who needs extra help as they grow older.

It isn’t someone who volunteers or is employed to provide support. Outside the UK they are known as caregivers.

In the UK, there are five million family caregivers whose unpaid labour contributes a staggering £445 million to the economy every day – that’s £162 billion per year. Research shows as many as one in five children and young people are young carers with a further 600,000 hidden young carers not receiving any support. 

What can be the impact of caring? 

Although for many carers, caring can have positive and rewarding aspects, it can also take a serious toll. Carers are known to experience higher than average rates of physical and mental illness, social isolation, and financial distress. More recently evidence has also emerged that indicates carers are a high-risk group for suicide.

What does the research say?

A 2021 review found evidence of suicidal thoughts and behaviours in carers from low-, middle-, and high-income countries, including the UK, Australia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Japan and the Netherlands. The review also found that suicidal thoughts and behaviours were not unique to a specific illness or disability. There was evidence of suicidal ideation and attempts in people caring for family members with cancer, dementia, HIV, schizophrenia, Down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Although there is a growing body of evidence on suicide risk in carers, it has been paid little attention in policy and practice. 

What can we do to help professionals who are supporting unpaid carers?

Associate Professor Siobhan O’Dwyer has been leading research on suicide and homicide-suicide in carers for the last 12 years. She is currently partnering with Grassroots Suicide Prevention to develop a new carer-focused suicide prevention training programme.

The course aims to enable health and social care professionals to develop a solid understanding of the risk factors specific to carers, the barriers they face when seeking and accessing support (including the additional issues faced by those with neurodiversity or from marginalised communities) and how to deliver a trauma-informed, wellness-oriented, evidence-based intervention that goes beyond the immediate first aid model of suicide prevention. It also covers the impact of working with carers at risk of suicide and ways of increasing resilience.

Professor O’Dwyer says “Health and social care professionals are regularly encountering carers at-risk of suicide, but many of them lack the knowledge and resources to identify and support these carers. With as many as 1 in 6 carers contemplating suicide, and 1 in 10 saying they’ve already attempted suicide, it’s vital that professionals can recognise the warning signs and are given the skills to respond to carers in crisis”.

Josceline Leicester, Services Manager from Devon Carers says, “We have found the training we did with Grassroots Suicide Prevention had an invaluable impact on our practice as it was informative and reassuring. It helped our staff explore themes around suicide and develop a language and confidence around talking about suicide. The training supported them on how to look after their own wellbeing when working with Carers who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or where a suicide has occurred.”

There is a national network of carer organisations working to ensure that unpaid carers are heard, feel valued and have access to the support, advice and resources they need to live a fulfilling life alongside caring. Your local carers support organisation will be able to provide more information. 

If you are supporting someone who is an unpaid carer, here are some helpful first steps you can take to help support someone:

  • Create a safe and non-judgmental space for the carer to express their feelings and concerns. Encourage them to talk about their struggles and listen attentively without interrupting, dismissing their concerns or offering solutions right away.
  • Let them know that their feelings are valid and that it’s understandable for them to experience stress, overwhelm, or despair.
  • If they express feelings of hopelessness, of being trapped in an unbearable situation or say things like “I can’t take this any longer”, they might be at risk of suicide. In that case you need to ask them clearly whether they are having thoughts of suicide. Use open-ended questions and invite them to tell the story behind their pain. Listen patiently until you notice an increase in ambivalence about wanting to die.
  • You will then need to help them take steps to get assistance and support. If they express immediate plans or intent to end their life, contact emergency services.
  • If possible, and they are not in immediate danger, help them develop a safety plan using Grassroots Suicide Prevention’s Stay Alive app. This will help them identify warning signs, coping strategies, emergency contacts, and steps to take when they are in crisis. The Stay Alive app also contains a list of all the support services available.
  • If appropriate and with their consent, help them reach out someone who could support them such as friends, family or a neighbour.
  • Whenever possible, offer your assistance with practical tasks and put them in touch with support groups for carers in the area.
  • Let them know that you are there for them and available to talk. Sometimes, just having someone who listens without judgment can make a significant difference.

Our free Real Talk interactive film is a great resource to help you remember the these first steps.

If you need support please phone the Samaritans on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258

If you would like to find out about more about our suicide prevention training programmes for carers, please contact us.

Did you know 1 in 5 people will have suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives?

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