Not sick enough: Experiences of carers of people with mental illness negotiating care for their relatives with mental health services

Michael Olasoji, Philip Maude, Kay McCauley

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44 Citations (Scopus)


What is known on the subject?: Existing literature provides insight into the general experience of carers of people with a mental illness. Previous studies have found that carers experience a range of emotions when looking after their relatives with a mental illness. However, experiences of carers as they engage with the healthcare system is largely absent from the literature. What this paper adds to existing knowledge?: This paper identified the experiences of carers when their relatives are experiencing a crisis or acutely unwell. Carers found themselves in the middle between mental health services and their relatives. Strategies employed by carers to ensure their relatives receive adequate care were identified from this study. This paper identified how carers needed to become more assertive in order to receive adequate care for their relatives, and this finding has implications for any future carer education. What are the implications for practice?: The participants identified the need to work more collaboratively with carers of people with a mental illness as they seek treatment for their relatives in order to achieve better health outcomes for the patients. Improved health service engagement of carers was seen by participants to assist them to better care for their relative. The study also found that there needs to be a clearer definition as to what constitutes mental health crisis and how carers are able to intervene during this period. Services could provide clear information concerning crisis services and in particular triage. Abstract: Aim The literature reporting experiences of relatives of people with mental illness regarding their interactions with mental health services identifies many commonalities. However, the actual experience of carers engaging the services and understanding healthcare systems remains a gap in the literature. The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of carers (of people with a severe mental illness) in a major area mental health service in Victoria Australia as they fulfil their caring role while negotiating support for their relative. A carer is defined as a family member or significant other who is the primary individual who provides informal care for a person with severe mental illness and may or may not be in receipt of income supplement for such a role. Specifically this study has a focus on the experience of the carer when negotiating care needs or admission with a mental health service. Method A qualitative descriptive approach was used with five focus groups as a means of data collection. Ethical approval for the study was obtained from both the hospital and universities ethics committees. Results Key themes identified using thematic analysis are presented in the words of the carers and include: “Juggling” between services; We became assertive and If only they would listen. Often carers were advocating for their relative and needing to negotiate between services (police and crisis assessment teams) to gain any form of assessment or intervention. Carers often spent a great deal of time on the phone to services only to be told that their relative was “not sick enough” to access care or that no response would occur without another service also being involved. Discussion Our research highlights the importance of working collaboratively with informal carers and acknowledging their valuable contribution to the care of their relatives with a severe mental illness. It is very important that adequate support is given to carers especially during the period when their relatives are experiencing a crisis. An understanding of their experiences ensures a more family focused approach towards care. The study findings should enable the healthcare team to focus attention on the issues which are most pertinent to carers. Nurses are advocates not only for the patient but also for their families. Relevance statement Carers supporting a person who experiences mental illness can often find themselves in difficult and emotionally challenging situations such as at times of crisis and admission to mental health services. The fourth and latest Australian National Mental Health Plan (2009–2014) acknowledged these concerns and highlighted the need to recognize the role of carers in promoting well-being and recovery of the relative with a mental illness. The plan acknowledges that families are often best placed to recognize signs of relapse in their family members with a mental illness and discharge planning should include the involvement of family members (Commonwealth of Australia,). To achieve best care outcomes for consumers, mental health nurses need to recognize the role of the carer and collaborate in care planning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)403-411
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • Carers
  • Mental Illness
  • Crisis
  • Advocacy
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Qualitative Research

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