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High Stress Levels in Parents of Adult Children with Mental Illness

 

Any caregiver is likely to be vulnerable to stress. However, parents who care for a child with a serious mental illness (SMI) are at increased risk for adverse physical symptoms resulting from stress. Those who care for an adult child with a SMI are even more likely to suffer the negative effects of stress because of the length of time that they have had to cope with the difficult task of caring for a loved one with SMI.  Although there is a vast amount of evidence showing how caring for a child with SMI can negatively impact a parent’s psychological health, there is scant clinical evidence highlighting the deleterious physiological effects to the caregiver. Erin T. Barker of the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison addressed this specific dynamic in a recent study by examining the cortisol levels in individuals charged with the care of adult children with SMI.

For her study, Barker asked 61 parents of adults with depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar to complete a stress diary and submit daily saliva samples over a period of several days. The cortisol levels of the participants were compared to the levels of 321 parents of adult children who had no mental health problems. Barker discovered that the cortisol awakening response (CAR) of the parents with SMI adult children increased less significantly half an hour after they arose in the morning than the control group. This suggests that the caregivers had a higher stress level upon waking than did the control group.  Additionally, Barker found that the cortisol levels of the caregivers declined less throughout the day than did the cortisol levels found in the parents with healthy adult children.

Barker said, “The fact that a similar pattern of hypoactivated daily cortisol in response to stress has been found across studies of parents of individuals with different diagnoses (i.e., schizophrenia, autism, developmental disabilities, and in the present analysis, SMI) and that used different measures of stress (i.e., behavioral problems of the adult child with the diagnosis, time spent with the adult child, and in the present analysis, daily stress not necessarily associated with the adult child) provides strong converging evidence for this effect.” She added that these findings underscore the importance of addressing the mental health, physiological health, and coping needs of aging parents who care for adult children with serious mental illnesses.

Reference:
Barker, E. T., Greenberg, J. S., Seltzer, M. M., Almeida, D. M. Daily Stress and Cortisol Patterns in Parents of Adult Children with a Serious Mental Illness. Health Psychology 31.1 (2012): 130-34. Print.

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Comments
  • erin n February 14th, 2012 at 5:24 AM #1

    There is no parent that should have to deal with something like this in their child, but there are those who do and some handle it well and others are filled with the stress and pressures of having a child with this kind of disability. This is not something that most of us would imagine parenthood being like, but for many parents this is the reality that they have been dealt. It does not make it easier but there are some very good support groups out there who can better help them deal and face the issues that are sure to come their way.

  • Mary Grayson February 14th, 2012 at 4:34 PM #2

    I feel so bad for these parents who have dedicated their whole lives to taking care of their children who have disabilities. That takes so much strength, something that I am not sure that I would have the endurance to do for the duration of their lives. It seems so bittersweet that they have to dedicate all of this to those kids- I know that the children cannot help it and the parents are dealing with the cards that they have been dealt, but it feels like such a shame that all of these lives get used up in this way.

  • Randye Kaye February 15th, 2012 at 12:58 PM #3

    I’m mother to a wonderful young man who has schizophrenia, author of the memoir about it (called Ben Behind His Voices), NAMI educator (Family to Family)and blogger…and the post I’m working on now is called Mental Illness and Families: the “Burden of Care”. This is a sensitive and important subject for us all, as we strive to balance our loved one’s independence with their needs, and our own lives with those of the people we love. Stress, indeed – I am not surprised. We do, like it or not, parent our children “for better or worse” – but I will say that education about mental illness saved our emotional lives. My family knows we take care of others when we can, but also must take care of ourselves or the results are not pretty.

  • Sam February 15th, 2012 at 1:54 PM #4

    I grew up with an uncle who had to live his whole life with my grandparents because he could not live on his own. They never once complained about the constant care and the sacrifices that they had to make because that was his child. Some people said it was a blessing when he died but my grandparentsgrieved and grieved because he was always their little boy and they loved him more than you could ever imagine. No matter the situation it is never easy to lose and bury your own child.

  • C n See February 15th, 2012 at 11:45 PM #5

    Parents may love the child and take care without a single complaint ever but it does take a tool on them.It snot easy caring for an individual with a health problem and is bound to have stressful and thereby making things even difficult :(

  • michelle June 25th, 2012 at 12:11 PM #6

    Then there are the added complications of legal problems some of these children experience. As a mother to an adult child who is bipolar, I was not prepared for him to also have to navigate legal troubles that resulted from his behavior. Truly, nobody I know can understand how terrifying this is. His birth mother is deceased so there’s no place to go for genetic history. And the courts don’t seem to care that the offenders have issues that incarceration alone cannot fix. It’s a very scary addition to an already stressful existence.

  • Angela January 16th, 2013 at 8:56 AM #7

    I have a son that suffers from a TBA from a MVA. He has the same things as schizophrenia. He also has so much anger. Me and his father are at a loss. He has tortured us now for the past 7 years. His dad has just had a break down. This can not go on forever, what can we do? We love him but he is not the son we raised.

  • Leslie Adamson May 6th, 2013 at 9:57 AM #8

    I am a mother of two schizophrenic daughters. I have been trying to care for them for 12 years. One lives with me and I cannot continue since my mental and physical health is now coming to an all time low. I have done this alone with the help of DMH. I know that I will have to find permanent housing for the one who has lived with me. This is an unbearable thought..it is like asking me whether I want to cut off my left hand or my right hand. I feel guilty that I am no longer able to bear it, but I am even more stressed not having her by my side. I simply can’t handle it anymore. I am working with DMH. Any words of encouragement or support out there?

  • Ingrid Brandao June 12th, 2013 at 5:31 PM #9

    Hello Leslie,
    It seems that we have much in common….I have two adult sons, age 27 with schizophrenia. Fortunately, I have my husband, but our lives are very painful and stressful, as you know.
    Maybe, we can help each other cope.
    Ingrid

  • Loretto August 1st, 2013 at 10:30 PM #10

    I’m actually on the flip side of this situation. I’m disabled due to a mental illness (Bipolar Type II and Generalized Anxiety Disorder) living with my elderly mother. My illness is not so severe that my mother is caring for me, but I started looking for alternate housing last year, when I realized that my mother is actually contributing to my illness. This past spring, I started to pull out of a three-year major depression in which my major form of exercise consisted of turning over in bed to lie on my other side for a while. I begged my mother to push me assign me a few household chores, make plans for shopping trips the next day for me to go along on, and her attitude was, I’m an adult, if I want to lie in bed all day I should go ahead and do that. As I’ve become psychologically less depressed, I’ve developed a lot of physical problems and illness, which I think is at least partly depression related. I had started managing my anxiety by meditation and other holistic means. And my mother has become increasingly emotionally abusive- not yelling and screaming, but playing sick little mind games. I’ve applied for housing in several other buildings over the past several months, but waiting lists for low-income and disabled housing are years long. Things came to a head last week. I had just gotten a part-time job as a video chat hostess working over the internet, and so while I’m stressed over my new job (I really like the job, but the apartment is too small for me to have a permanent workspace, so setting up and tearing down is a lot of work) she has been laying additional obligations on me, leaving housework undone at about the time I would need to be setting up my workspace, and nagging, nagging, nagging. You’d think she would be glad that I have something that helps with my sense of self-worth and contributes to the household income and cut me a little slack until I get settled into the job and can get a routine going. I had to go back on my anti-anxiety medication largely due to her abuse. The other day, I reached a breaking point, and contacted my DMH worker and told her if I didn’t get into new housing soon, I’m either going to commit suicide or become violent toward my mother. My DMH worker told me my situation is actually common- elderly parents will emotionally abuse a mentally ill or disabled adult child to the point that they crack and either threaten violence or actually hit them, then cry “elder abuse”, and once that accusation has been made, you’re guilty even after proven innocent and will never be able to get into disabled housing where there are elderly people living in the building (which is the case in nearly all housing for the disabled). The stress and abuse has affected my physical health to the point I’ve had to take off work in order to recuperate. I’m an independent contractor, so I can do that, but it makes me look really unprofessional and the company I’m working for is not happy. My DMH worker may be able to get me into housing within the next couple of months, but the rent will be more than 80% of my SSDI income, so I need to get back online and working again so I can start making enough extra income that I can afford the rent and utilities. Meanwhile, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be contacting the Housing Authority and see if I can get bumped up on the wait lists because I’m in a crisis situation, but for the time being, I just have to white-knuckle it.

  • Karen March 8th, 2014 at 5:11 PM #11

    I am having a really hard time. We have been parenting my son who struggles with depression, anxiety, mood disorder,ADHD, learning disabilities and now substance issues. He is 19 and we had to have him removed from our home. It is tearing out my heart and soul. I know that we have done all we can and will continue to support him as best we can. It’s hard to function like all is ok and to grieve for all of our suffering. It’s hard not to feel helpless as you watch things unfold. I look at other young men and wonder why.. It’s so sad.

  • Victoria April 16th, 2014 at 6:58 PM #12

    I have borne the brunt of my son’s bi polar outbursts and abuse of our entire family since he was a young boy. He is now 18 and we can’t really distinguish the mental illness from his abusive personality traits that smacks of his father’s behavior (which is why I divorced his father). I just can’t take anymore. My cortisol levels are through the roof, I hardly eat and yet am overweight, of course, it’s the cortisol, and my son’s revolting behavior towards my husband, his step-father, a man who has provided all a father could and more (his bio dad fled the country to get out of paying child support) has nearly destroyed our marriage. At what point, do I have the right to tell my son to just leave, get out and leave us alone. I have nursed him through two suicide attempts and now he uses the threat of suicide to coerce us into giving in to whatever he demands of us. I don’t even know who he is anymore, I mean, really, he bears no resemblance anymore to the sweet little boy I loved and tried as hard as I could to raise well and care for. Today he said something so cruel and vile to me that he finally crossed a line I cannot abide. My son has alianated his sister, his step-brothers and now finally me, his mother. He has been provided with all the medical care that can be offered, we have three mental health professionals on the payroll and yet nothing is working. I have paid thousands in co-pays, hospital bills and RXs and for nothing It’s like he doesn’t even want to try and cope with his illness, and we are all his victims…he has no care for the pain his reckless words and behavior causes us. I want out of this hell.

  • Kim May 24th, 2014 at 2:46 PM #13

    I came to this site because I felt like I was about to have a nervous breakdown over my adult son. He has been diagnosed with Bipolar I with psychosis. He is continually abusive to me when he is manic and says scary things. For example he calls himself lord Lucifer. He looses touch with reality during his manic times. I feel like I am watching a slow moving train wreck and worry about what he will do next. Will he end up in jail again or take another trip to the mental hospital? Will I survive this? Will he survive this? My son has been successful, owns his own business and performs comedy. He is able to keep it together for short stretches of time. But that’s it. Short stretches of time. Then the mania takes over and ruins his life and everyone around him that loves him. He is extremely abusive and dangerous. He stops showering, shaving and taking care of his house. I try to tell him to get help because he is on a downward spiral, but I’m speaking to deaf ears. He is in his own reality right now. I think this is going to kill me as his mother who loves him and worries daily. All I can do is to give myself some space from him and try to keep it together myself. But when I try to get space from his abuse he says that I’m not supporting him during his darkest times. Help! What have others done to get through this insanity and stay sane while trying to help them out of their trauma?

  • Cheryl July 12th, 2014 at 7:23 PM #14

    Funny how you kind of trip over things like this as you blindly search…..search…..search…..the Internet for anything to help: answers, information, support, empathy. And so I found this page — an interesting article, but more than that a collection of people whose stories are so much like my own.

    I am a single (divorced) mother whose husband washed his hands of parenthood a few years ago. My 24 year old son has suffered depression and anxiety since age 16, and is getting worse. He refuses treatment but continues sinking deeper into despair — becoming hostile and abusive (mainly toward me, but also to his sister and others), pushing people away, and having difficulty thriving and becoming self-sufficient in the world.

    I am perpetually holding my breath, living in fear that he will one day tire of the battle and take his own life.

    It’s sad to see the lack of responses to posters here who ask for coping tips…Maybe there are just no tips to be had. Maybe, like all of life’s tests, we simply survive it because we have no other choice.

    There’s a quote I’m reminded of: ‘I feel so much better now that I’ve given up hope.’ Maybe one key is to have low expectations: don’t even hope to be rescued. Once you resign yourself to it, there’s no more reason to think about it and you might find yourself feeling OK sometimes.

    I am in awe of the courage and strength I see here, and the infinite love of parents for their children. Godspeed to you all, and thank you for sharing your stories. I feel less alone.

  • Jacqueline July 16th, 2014 at 11:28 AM #15

    Cheryl, Thank you for your post it was insightful…letting go releases you as well as your love one.

  • Louise August 8th, 2014 at 10:53 AM #16

    I wish I had some encouraging words. I am currently dealing an with an adult daughter with bipolar disorder who can hold a job, she gets them but cant keep them. she should be on disability, but is in denial and gets more than angry when I make suggestions. there is a little boy involved here to that often is caught in the middle of her wrath when she is angry, and she doesn’t care. I am ready to cut her loose totally just to survive myself. I am home from work today because of so much stress from last night when she told me she was going to stop one of her meds. Any advice for support would be helpful

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