Schizophrenia Caregivers Take Health Hit

Article excerpt

Although people suffering from long-term, incapacitating psychiatric disorders were once consigned to mental institutions and hospital back wards, as many as 2 out of 3 now live with family members. People caring for a mentally ill relative not only face a draining and seemingly endless task but may in certain cases catch far more than their fair share of colds and other infectious illnesses, a new study suggests.

The frequent appearance of hallucinations, delusions, and other so-called positive symptoms in people diagnosed with schizophrenia accompanies high numbers of infectious ailments in their caregivers, asserts a team led by psychologist Dennis G. Dyck of Washington State University in Spokane.

Symptoms of schizophrenia that are classified as negative, such as persistent apathy and social withdrawal, exhibit no link to caregivers' infectious ills, the scientists report in the July/August PSYCHOSOMATIC MEDICINE.

These long-lasting, negative symptoms did, however, create a greater burden for caregivers than intermittent positive symptoms, the researchers contend. In the study, the team measured burden by evaluating care-related money woes, worry about one's afflicted relative, self-blame for the situation, and stigma attached to having a mentally ill family member.

The new evidence "contributes to a growing body of literature suggesting that ... caregiving may be not only burdensome but actually hazardous to the caregiver's health," comments psychiatrist Igor Grant of the University of California, San Diego in the same journal issue.

Other researchers have found that people who care for spouses with Alzheimer's disease report high levels of burden and depression and also exhibit signs of weakened immune function (SN: 4/6/91, p. 217). Unlike Alzheimer's disease, however, schizophrenia typically strikes young adults who then require decades of care from relatively young parents or siblings.

The mental and physiological consequences of this type of "very-long-term stress" for caregivers have attracted little scientific attention, Grant says. …