Caring for someone with a physical or mental illness

Caring for someone else while at uni can be challenging. It’s important to look after yourself and know what supports are available to help both you and the person you care about lead healthier lives.

Are you a carer or helping someone out?

Carers are everyday people who provide unpaid care and support to family members or friends who have a disability, mental illness, alcohol or other drug issue, chronic health condition, or terminal illness. They may also look after an older person who needs care.

Caring for someone can include providing a range of health care or personal assistance. You might be helping with things like:

  • Providing emotional support
  • Doing housework
  • Helping your loved one with their medication, getting to appointments or other places
  • Looking after kids
  • Paying bills or providing other financial support
  • Helping with personal care such as showering, going to the toilet, or dressing
  • Translating if English is not your loved one’s first language
  • Amongst other additional responsibilities.

Many people in a caring role don’t identify as being a 'carer' – they may feel they’re simply helping someone they love. However, understanding the importance of your role and being aware of the information, services, and supports available can help both you and the person you care about lead healthier and more satisfying lives.

The challenges of caring for someone while studying at uni

Being a carer can be rewarding but also difficult and overwhelming. When you’re caring for someone whilst studying at university, this can present some particular challenges including:

  • Difficulty focusing on study
  • Managing uni work and caring responsibilities
  • Challenges relating with others or maintaining friendships
  • Social isolation or lacking a support network
  • Lack of engagement with enjoyable or social activities due to time constraints or feelings of guilt
  • Financial strain.

Being a carer is a big commitment, and burnout is not uncommon. Some signs that this might be happening include:

  • Changes in your emotions – e.g., intense or prolonged feelings of anxiety, low mood, anger, resentment, guilt, or hopelessness
  • Feeling socially isolated
  • Struggling to keep up with uni – e.g., missing lectures or tutorials, difficulty finding time to study or work on assignments
  • Feeling tired or exhausted all the time
  • Finding it hard to concentrate in class or on a task at hand.

To prevent burnout and to stay resilient, looking after yourself and getting the support you need is a crucial part of caring for someone else.

Looking after yourself while caring for someone else

Looking after yourself, as well as the person you care about, can be challenging when there are many demands on your time and head space. At the same time, it’s important to remember that looking out for yourself will help you be more resilient in the face of challenges, and cope better with your caring responsibilities.

While everyone’s situation is different, here are our top tips for looking after yourself:

Give yourself permission to take a break

This can be setting aside time (even if it’s only 15 minutes) to do something you enjoy, like having a coffee or cup of tea, watching a movie or TV show, taking a walk in the park, or cuddling a pet. Feeling more refreshed will help you provide better support for your loved one. You can also find out more about respite care to give everyone a break.

Talk to someone about the ups and downs

Talking things through with supportive family and friends can help you feel less alone, express your feelings, and make things clearer and less overwhelming. If you don’t feel able to talk to someone in your personal life, it can be helpful to connect with others going through similar experiences through carer support groups or online carer forums.

Keep up fundamental self-care

Looking after your body by eating a balanced diet and getting sufficient sleep will help you keep up your strength and health. It can be hard to find time for exercise, but try your best to be active, even if it’s a short walk a few times a week.

Stay informed

Learn what you can about the type of illness, disability, or condition the person you’re caring for is experiencing. You can read information from reputable government or health organisations (we’ve made some recommendations below), or find out more about training courses for carers of people with your loved one’s condition. Understanding more about their experience and learning practical skills can help you feel better equipped to cope with challenging situations.

Set limits and boundaries in your role as a carer

Be sensible and clear about what kind of support you’re reasonably able to provide. This is about what you can (and cannot) do, or when and how much you're available. It’s more helpful to someone to be a consistent, stable support rather than someone who is overly stretched, stressed, or overwhelmed.

Ask for help

There are many services and organisations whose priority is to help carers and their loved ones:

  • Carer Gateway is a helpful place to start. They can provide practical information and resources for carers including tip sheets, phone counselling, an online carer forum, self-guided courses, and information on respite and financial help. You can also call them on 1800 422 737 (weekdays, 8am to 6pm).
  • Carers Victoria can also connect carers to a wide range of services including counselling, funding support, respite, education, and training. You can call the Carer Advisory Line on 1800 242 636 (weekdays, 8.30am – 5pm) for advice about practical supports, navigating systems, and referral for education or counselling sessions.
  • For young carers, Reach Out have online resources on supporting family and friends, and a handy list of service options.

If you are supporting someone with a mental illness or substance use problems:

  • SANE Australia have a comprehensive guide for families, friends, and carers of someone with a mental illness, and how they can be supported to help the person and themselves.
  • The Victorian government website has resources for family and friends of people who have problematic alcohol and other drug use.
  • Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) has resources for parents, their family and friends, in support of children and young people in families where a parent experiences mental illness.

Apart from checking out these services, it can also be a good idea to get support at uni:

If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.

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