A “small but significant” proportion of female carers experience death thoughts, a forthcoming study will show, adding to the growing body of evidence on suicide-related thoughts and behaviours in carers.

The research from Griffith University found that 7.1 per cent of female carers had felt life was not worth living, also known as having death thoughts, in the previous week, compared with 5.7 per cent of non-carers.

“Carers with death thoughts had poorer physical and mental health, higher levels of anxiety, lower levels of optimism and reported less social support,” says the research, soon to be published in the journal Maturitas.

The research used data from the fifth survey of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, of which 10,528 women aged between 56 and 61 answered questions on caring and death thoughts. Of these, 3,077 were classified as carers.

Lead author, Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer from Griffith University, said the study echoed previous research when it highlighted that depression was a significant predictor for thinking about suicide.

The latest research found that 80 per cent of carers who had experienced death thoughts also met the cut-off for clinically significant depressive symptoms, compared to 22 per cent of carers who had not experienced death thoughts.

“Screening for depression among carers might be an important first step in reducing suicide risk in this group, and that’s something easily done via a range of health professionals,” Dr O’Dwyer told Australian Ageing Agenda.

Another important finding was that nearly three-quarters of carers who had not experienced death thoughts reported being satisfied with their caring role.

Dr O’Dwyer described this as “a novel finding”, as research and policy over the past 40 years had focussed on carer burden.

“We often forget that some carers are quite satisfied with the role and are quite happy with what they’re doing,” she said, adding that it was important to strike a balance between identifying and supporting carers who were struggling and learning from those who were coping well.

Echoing previous research, the study also found that perceptions of social support were an important factor among carers. Dr O’Dwyer said the issue wasn’t the amount of social support, but rather how carers perceived it. “Do they feel it’s the right sort of social support? Is it frequent enough? Their perceptions of it are the key thing.”

Areas for future research

Importantly, the study highlighted key issues that the researchers said warrant further exploration.

For example, the study noted that the caring role “may not be the cause of, but rather the catalyst for death thoughts”, as previous research found that the majority of carers who had contemplated suicide had experienced mental health problems prior to becoming a carer.

“We think that for some people they might have had stresses or issues in their life before they became carers, and then caring is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that’s when suicidal thoughts crop up. But that’s something that needs much more exploration,” Dr O’Dwyer said.

Focus on women

Dr O’Dwyer said that an opportunity to focus on female carers was a particular impetus behind the study, as no previous research had focused solely on women, despite the fact they were the majority of informal carers.

“It was great to have access to the data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, as it is a really representative sample of Australian women,” she said.

The study, Feeling that life is not worth living (death thoughts) among middle-aged, Australian women providing unpaid care, by O’Dwyer, Wendy Moyle, Nancy Pachana, Billy Sung and Susan Barrett, will be published in the journal Maturitas.

Fast facts:

  • O’Dwyer and colleagues’ latest study found that 7.1 per cent of female carers had felt life was not worth living in the previous week, compared with 5.7 per cent of non-carers
  • A 1997 study by Rosengard and Folkman of men caring for male partners with AIDS found that as many as 50 per cent had contemplated suicide
  • O’Dwyer and colleagues’ previous research found that one in four family carers of people with dementia had contemplated suicide more than once in the previous year
  • One third of those said they were likely to attempt suicide in the future.

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