Title

An exploration of the experience of caring for the mentally ill

Date of Award

2011

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology

School

School of Psychology

Faculty

Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Dr. Julie Ann Pooley

Second Advisor

Dr. Deirdre Drake

Abstract

Family caregivers are confronted with the often arduous task of attending to the needs of their mentally ill relatives and have become increasingly prominent in society following the Australian deinstitutionalisation movement. The discourse pertaining to the experiences of mental illness caregivers is particularly negative and is largely generated from international research. While other aspects of the caregiving experience have been explored, such literature is scarce and generally concentrates on the rewards of caregiving. A line of inquiry that has yet to be investigated is the presence of posttraumatic growth among mental illness caregivers. Posttraumatic growth is a concept that is garnering research interest and describes the positive life transformations that emerge in people who have endured trauma. By exploring posttraumatic growth among carers for the mentally ill, contemporary understandings of mental illness caregiving would be advanced by revealing a dimension of caregiving previously unconsidered. This research therefore sought to engender a more holistic understanding of the experiences of Australian mental illness caregivers by investigating (1) the extent to which posttraumatic growth is prevalent among carers for the mentally ill, and (2) whether social support, self-efficacy, and health facilitate such growth in carers. Two studies were conducted: a quantitative study that utilised self-report questionnaires (Study 1) and a qualitative study that collected data through semistructured interviews (Study 2). The participants were mostly recruited from carer support organisations and included 74 participants for Study 1 and 20 participants for Study 2. The findings from Study 1 showed participants reported relatively high levels of posttraumatic growth, social support, and self-efficacy while overall health and wellbeing was reported as average. In terms of posttraumatic growth predictor variables: social support, selfefficacy, and health failed to predict posttraumatic growth in this caregiver sample. Expanding on the findings from Study 1, Study 2 demonstrated the multidimensional nature of mental illness caregiving with five core themes emerging from the data. Theme one, the unfortunate cost of mental illness caregiving, concentrated on the prominence of subjective and objective burden in the caregiving experience. The dispositional attributes that impact on the caregiving experience comprised the second theme and this theme discussed the role of hope and self-efficacy in the lives of mental illness caregivers. The third theme addressed the influence of external forces on the caregiving experience, namely the effect of the mental health system, the mental health profession, and stigma. Theme four explored coping among the carers and highlighted the myriad of coping strategies utilised by the mental illness caregivers. The final theme spoke of favourable caregiving outcomes, specifically the presence of posttraumatic growth among the carers. Posttraumatic growth was prevalent among the participants and particular dispositional attributes and coping strategies were regarded as important variables in the development of such growth. While the two studies appear to have produced opposing findings, several explanations are offered to account for this discrepancy. The collective findings from this research project contribute greatly to the extant literature on mental illness caregiving and posttraumatic growth, and effect several important theoretical and practical implications for the fields of community and clinical psychology.

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