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 SMI are even more likely to experience 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 mental health issues. 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 concerns. Barker discovered that the cortisol awakening response (CAR) of the parents of adult children with SMI 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 of adult children who did not have SMI.
“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,” Barker said. 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 health issues.
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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