As we get ready for the holidays, we have a guest post by “Mara”, where she discusses the neglected issue of graduate students experiencing hardships and psychological vulnerabilities as a result of being carers to their loved ones. She draws on her experiences to suggest ways in which carers can be more nurturing towards themselves. We hope these insights take you beyond just the holiday season and take you through to the next one.
I was the main carer for my partner when she was struggling with depression during her studies. We were at two different universities, my partner as an undergraduate and me as a postgraduate student, and we mainly saw each other at the weekends. We both had very little mandatory lectures to attend, which meant that we were quite flexible. For me as a carer, this was helpful as I could take my work with me and stay with my partner when I felt she needed that. At the same time, despite some flexibility, it was nevertheless difficult to juggle the demands of my course and my partner’s needs.
Given that only people with mental illness or disability are entitled to special arrangements at university such as extended deadlines, but not carers, there were times I found it very hard to be there for my partner. I would often feel quite helpless for not being able to prioritise my partner and simultaneously struggle to take care of my needs during this time. So I present to you seven ways of coping with the responsibilities of caring for a partner with depression, whilst being mindful of your own needs for self-care.
Use your energy as if your partner will never get better. Be aware that you have limited energy and you might be in this for the long-haul. I often had endless ideas about how I could help my partner, and wanted to try everything possible to make her feel better. But in having these unrealistic expectations of myself, and putting in this much effort, it left me feeling drained every time we spent weekends together. The amount of time and effort I put into caring for my partner was not something I could have sustained for a long time. So even if my partner started to feel better, I would still struggle to support her, simply because I was so drained not just from the demands of caring for an ill person, but also from the demands I was making of myself in trying to be an ideal carer.
Take advantage of the university’s mental health services. In my experience, most universities have mental health and disability services that are easily accessible and provide prompt care or academic adjustments to students in need. But for me, it was important to contact counselling services at my university and get information about help I could get as a carer. Having a range of free mental health services available is a luxury you might not have once you have graduated, so it is important to enquire about support services that might be available at universities for carers in particular – both academic and other forms of support.
Establish safety nets. Being a sole carer for someone can put a lot of pressure on you. If you are the only person your partner can rely on, it means you need to be available at all times, which is neither possible nor healthy. It therefore makes sense to try to get more people involved in the care of your loved one. A safety net, for example, can be a selected group of friends or family members that you know you can contact anytime if you need help. Especially if you don’t live together, it is very helpful to know that your partner has a safety net in the place they live. This way, you will find it easier to relax and take care of yourself knowing that your partner has other people to rely on. Make sure you have your own safety net in place as well, preferably not relying on the same people as your partner.
Reframing – comparing depression to a physical illness. I found it very helpful to step back and think how I would treat my partner if she had a broken leg instead. I would certainly lower my expectations in how far my partner could walk on crutches, so why not treat depression the same way? That way, it reminds you to be realistic and compassionate towards both your loved one and yourself as a carer.
Avoid personalising – realise that you cannot win against depressive thoughts. Sometimes no matter what I said or did, it would still be interpreted by my partner in a negative way. If I spent a day with her, she would feel bad for keeping me from doing my coursework; if I spent some time at the library, she would feel like I didn’t want to be with her. It is therefore helpful to remember that those thoughts are caused by depression, not by your behaviour.
Take care of your own mental wellbeing as well. It is very important that you have some support of your own to make sure your own mental health is not getting worse. This can be professional help, or simply making sure that part of your free time is spent with something “depression-free” like a hobby or meeting friends.
Always remember: you cannot make their illness disappear, no matter how hard you try. You can be there, listen, hug them, make their favourite food, help in many ways, but you do not have the power to remove depression from their brain. Don’t ever believe you have that power, even when other people might suggest that you do. At times when I thought that I could make my partner recover if I only tried hard enough, my own mental health was suffering, as I was unable to succeed. You can only open doors for your partner, but in the end, they will have to go through them themselves. For me, this was the hardest to learn, because I often wished I could have made my partner recover with will power alone.
“Mara” is a PhD student in the Life Sciences and is from Germany.