Published online by Cambridge University Press: 31 August 2018
Planning mental health carer services requires information about the number of carers, their characteristics, service use and unmet support needs. Available Australian estimates vary widely due to different definitions of mental illness and the types of carers included. This study aimed to provide a detailed profile of Australian mental health carers using a nationally representative household survey.
The number of mental health carers, characteristics of carers and their care recipients, caring hours and tasks provided, service use and unmet service needs were derived from the national 2012 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. Co-resident carers of adults with a mental illness were compared with those caring for people with physical health and other cognitive/behavioural conditions (e.g., autism, intellectual disability, dementia) on measures of service use, service needs and aspects of their caring role.
In 2012, there were 225 421 co-resident carers of adults with mental illness in Australia, representing 1.0% of the population, and an estimated further 103 813 mental health carers not living with their care recipient. The majority of co-resident carers supported one person with mental illness, usually their partner or adult child. Mental health carers were more likely than physical health carers to provide emotional support (68.1% v. 19.7% of carers) and less likely to assist with practical tasks (64.1% v. 86.6%) and activities of daily living (31.9% v. 48.9%). Of co-resident mental health carers, 22.5% or 50 828 people were confirmed primary carers – the person providing the most support to their care recipient. Many primary mental health carers (37.8%) provided more than 40 h of care per week. Only 23.8% of primary mental health carers received government income support for carers and only 34.4% received formal service assistance in their caring role, while 49.0% wanted more support. Significantly more primary mental health than primary physical health carers were dissatisfied with received services (20.0% v. 3.2%), and 35.0% did not know what services were available to them.
Results reveal a sizable number of mental health carers with unmet needs in the Australian community, particularly with respect to financial assistance and respite care, and that these carers are poorly informed about available supports. The prominence of emotional support and their greater dissatisfaction with services indicate a need to better tailor carer services. If implemented carefully, recent Australian reforms including the Carer Gateway and National Disability Insurance Scheme hold promise for improving mental health carer supports.
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