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Jun 17, 2021
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The pandemic has taken a toll on people's mental health. A new CDC report says that toll has been much higher for unpaid caregivers, those taking care of loved ones. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has the story.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Amy Adams lives in Seneca, Ill. Last December her mother, who lives nearby, suffered a heart attack and ended up in the hospital, needing bypass surgery. But Adams wasn't allowed to see her.

AMY ADAMS: She ended up in three hospitals before she ended up where she had her surgery with no family support whatsoever. And she was too ill to even talk on the phone with me.

CHATTERJEE: And not being able to visit made it hard for her to get medical information about her mother.

ADAMS: My mom - she had, like, multiple, you know, specialists, you know, seeing her. And so it's - you know, it was really hard to try to touch base with them, you know, to get, like, a picture.

CHATTERJEE: By the time Adams brought her home two months later, she felt out of the loop and unprepared as a caregiver. Her mother has been in and out of hospital since, and Adams herself has developed severe anxiety.

ADAMS: For a good month or so, I was just, like, not sleeping, terribly anxious, very irritable, overwhelmed.

CHATTERJEE: Over 40% of people in the United States identified as unpaid caregivers in a new study. Author Mark Czeisler says two-thirds of this group said they had struggled with mental health symptoms.

MARK CZEISLER: Symptoms of anxiety or depression, symptoms of COVID-19 trauma and stress-related disorders and suicidal ideation - either wishing that they had gone to bed and didn't wake up or having seriously considered trying to kill themselves.

CHATTERJEE: In comparison, only a third of people without caregiving responsibilities had these symptoms in the month before. Czeisler, a research trainee at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, says the caregivers who were affected the most is the sandwich generation, those taking care of children under 18 as well as older loved ones.

CZEISLER: In that group, the prevalence of adverse mental health symptoms went up to 85%.

CHATTERJEE: And they were five times more likely to have mental health symptoms than people without these roles. Co-author Shantha Rajaratnam is a psychologist at Monash University in Australia.

SHANTHA RAJARATNAM: What is striking here is just how widespread unpaid caregiving responsibilities are in the population and how much of a burden and a toll that these responsibilities can be having.

CHATTERJEE: Psychologist Dolores Gallagher-Thompson at Stanford wasn't involved in the new study but has worked with unpaid caregivers. She says caregiving has always been stressful, but the pandemic made it even harder, partly by taking away people's usual coping mechanisms.

DOLORES GALLAGHER-THOMPSON: Exercise, going to the gym, going to church, going to the movies, going out to dinner.

CHATTERJEE: The usual in-person services and supports people relied on in pre-pandemic times disappeared as well.

GALLAGHER-THOMPSON: You know, it was very hard to find home health care workers that were willing to come into the home, like, to give physical therapy or occupational therapy or to give the caregiver a respite.

CHATTERJEE: And as the new study confirms, support can make a big difference. People who had help with caregiving coped better and had lower risk of mental health problems. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

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