Family burden is a term that encompasses all of the challenges that may exist for an individual who lives with someone who has experienced a significant illness, particularly a long-term illness. Even if the illness does not require that the family member provide care for their loved one, the emotional toll that the illness can have on the family is part of the overall burden. Additionally, any caregiving responsibilities and financial, relational, and personal effects are considered part of family burden. Because family caregiving is becoming increasingly popular and more individuals are living for longer periods with physical and mental illnesses, it is imperative to understand how family burden affects the caregivers and even significant others who do not have to provide care. Therefore, Edel Ennis of the School of Psychology at the University of Ulster in the UK recently conducted a study that explored the relationship between family health, family burden, and participant psychological well-being.
Ennis considered the type of illness, noting that some illnesses such as bipolar, dementia, and Alzheimer’s are particularly emotionally taxing on family members, the relationship between the participant and ill family member, marital status, income, and gender. After examining over 3,000 participants, Ennis found a direct and distinct relationship between family burden and individual mental health. Specifically, the higher the perceived family burden was; the worse the psychological well-being of the participant. For women, high family burden was related to increased risk for depression. For men and women, low income, and singlehood were risk factors for increased stress and poor mood. Ennis believes that limited finances and lack of other people in the home to provide support could explain this finding.
One result that was unexpected was that the participant’s relationship to the ill family member did not affect overall psychological well-being. Previous research has suggested that caring for a spouse is often more emotionally depleting than caring for a parent or child. However, in this study, that was not the case. But, Ennis did find that younger caregivers were more vulnerable to negative psychological outcomes. For all the participants, higher family burden was reported for family member mental health problems versus physical health problems. In conclusion, this study shows that individuals living with an ill family member, even those who do not directly provide care, are at risk for psychological problems and should be targeted for interventions. Ennis added, “This is essential given the increasing numbers of individuals requiring additional support, and the increasing reliance on the family to provide this support.”
Ennis E., Bunting, B.P. (2013). Family burden, family health and personal mental health. BMC Public Health 13: 255. Published online 2013 March 21. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-255
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