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Psychological distress common in families of stroke survivors

Study reveals anxiety, depression and PTSD in loved ones, again highlighting challenges of being a carer

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The anguish and psychological distress faced by the loved ones of stroke survivors, and need for greater support for families, has been emphasised through a new study. 

New research reveals nearly 30 per cent of caregivers of stroke patients experience high levels of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the first year after their loved one leaves hospital. 

While stroke transforms a patient’s life, it can be equally devastating for their family and wider network, with psychological distress found in almost a third of those who took part in the study. 

It also shines further light on the role of a family carer and the demands such an unexpected role brings. Recent research revealed that nine in ten carers for people with dementia confessed to feeling near crisis point, with one in three experiencing problems with their emotional health. 

The stroke study, which focused on families in the acute stage of care, is a reminder of the need to consider families and loved ones, alongside the patient, said researchers.

“As physicians, we usually concentrate on our patients, and it is important to recognise that caregivers may have long-term consequences from a loved one’s severe illness,” said Dr Lewis Morgenstern, professor of neurology, neurosurgery and emergency medicine at University of Michigan Medical School.

“This research suggests that depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are common among family members who make life and death decisions for their loved ones who are very sick.”

The study, carried out in Texas between April 2016 and October 2020, involved families of survivors of severe stroke. 

Between 17 and 28 per cent of caregivers reported high scores on measures of psychological distress, which covered anxiety, depression and PTSD. Up to 16 per cent of loved ones experienced all three conditions related to their role.

PTSD was worse among Mexican American caregivers compared to white caregivers, the study found. Depression scores also improved more rapidly over time for white caregivers.

“There are important support systems for families in hospitals which include nurses, social workers and the patient’s medical team,” Dr Morgenstern said.

“The role of family-centred care has received a lot of traction in recent years, and this research emphasises how important that is.”

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