The Invisible Population: UNC Wilmington Nursing Lecturer Looks at Stress on Young Caregivers

Much research has been devoted to assessing care of adults with mental illnesses, but what about the effects on the people who care for them? The population of young caregivers of parents with mental illnesses has been virtually ignored in research, policy and practices, noted UNCW nursing lecturer Brandy Mechling. However, they are a vulnerable population because they are often under a great deal of stress in caring for their parents while also possibly inheriting a genetic tendency toward mental illness.Brandy Mechling

"Many might have responsibilities that are beyond their developmental level," explained Mechling. "Care giving duties might also take priority over schoolwork and time with friends. In most cases, these families lack the resources necessary for the care of the mentally ill parent as well as the support needed for these youth."

The majority of research on young caregivers has been conducted outside the United States, primarily in the United Kingdom, and studies have focused mostly on those whose parents have physical rather than mental illness. In addition, little research has been done to examine the impact of growing up with a parent who is mentally ill. While most research shows that young caregivers struggle more in school, have difficulty with socialization and often have a strained relationship with their parent, other scholars have suggested that there are also positive outcomes like learned compassion and empathy.

Mechling is setting out to bridge the gaps. This summer, as part of her doctoral dissertation research, she will interview a sample of approximately 125 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who grew up in a home with a parent suffering from depression. Several variables will be considered in examining the experience of having a depressed parent while growing up and how those factors may impact present psycho-social wellbeing. These include the length of the parent's depressive symptoms, the child's age and developmental phases that coincided with the parent's depression, available social supports, the youth's understanding of the parent's symptoms and illness, care giving and role change elements, the youth's level of hope during his or her upbringing, the degree of stress in experiencing depression in their parent and responsibilities and positive or negative aspects of caregiving. After collecting the data, she'll be conducting a multiple regression analysis which will examine relationships between all of these variables from the participant's youth and current psychosocial well being as a young adult.

"Findings from this study will help professionals, including nurses, better understand what factors contribute to the psychosocial outcomes for this population," Mechling explained. "We hope that outcomes from this study will build on what we know about the experiences and needs of youth who grow up with a depressed parent in the home. Hopefully, we can use that information to build interventions to assist and support youth and their families."

The research will supplement Mechling's recent publication in The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, Vol. 49, No. 3, which provides a background review of literature about the experiences of youth serving as caregivers for mentally ill patients.

By Lindsay Key '11MFA