Carers’ experiences of psychiatrists, counsellors and other mental health practitioners

This Talking Point is about carers’ experiences of the support the person being cared for received from psychiatrists, counsellors and other mental health practitioners, and the support and respect these practitioners gave to carers. It also covers the support carers themselves received from their own GP, psychologist or psychiatrist. To find out about information carers received from mental health professionals, see Carers’ experiences of searching for information and Carers’ experiences of General Practitioners.

All of the carers we spoke to talked about positive and negative experiences of seeking support for the person being cared for from psychiatrists and mental health practitioners. Some had found psychiatrists who worked well with the person cared for and communicated effectively with them as carers, while others had the opposite experience. Some also talked about seeking support for themselves from counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Quick Links

Carers’ experiences of support from the person being cared for’s psychiatrist and mental health practitioners
Being involved in consultations with the person being cared for’s psychiatrist
Carers’ experiences of the approach of psychiatrists and mental health practitioners towards them
Support for carers from psychiatrists, mental health practitioners and counsellors

Carers’ experiences of support from the person being cared for’s psychiatrist and mental health practitioners

Many carers talked about good relationships they had with the person being cared for’s psychiatrist. Elizabeth said there was a good ‘flow of information’ between her and her son’s psychiatrist and that she felt ‘calm in his presence’. Dianne’s son had once had a private psychiatrist who she could ‘ring up anytime’. Katherine’s son saw one psychiatrist for 14 years who she said ‘managed him well’ when her son ‘didn’t want to know’ about his ‘illness’.

Kay said her son’s psychiatrist was ‘very good’ and helped him change his medication.

Elizabeth described calling her son’s psychiatrist when she thought her son had stopped taking his medication. The psychiatrist encouraged him to take it, which meant Elizabeth felt she had ‘backup’.

Some carers were concerned, however, that the person being cared for was not getting enough support, or the right support, and said levels of care varied between practitioners. James said, ‘some … try harder than others’. Alexia felt ‘devastated’ by the lack of ‘support or follow up’ when her son left hospital and ‘hit rock bottom’. Alex’s daughter’s psychiatrist dismissed his concerns that she had ‘anorexia bulimia’, and it was her GP who eventually referred her for treatment in hospital. Some carers, particularly those in regional areas, said it was difficult to get access to a psychiatrist when they needed it (see also Carers’ experiences of hospitals and mental health units).

Jeannie, a regional carer, thought her son might have ‘borderline personality disorder’ but could not get a psychiatrist to ‘even assess him’. She said she didn’t know where the ‘help … that he needs’ would come from.

A few carers, like Laura, a new carer, said they did not fully understand ‘how the public system work[ed]’. Sasha similarly observed, ‘psych services … now can ring us and give us information … a while back they couldn’t … It’s all very confusing’. James said he had met lots of psychiatrists in connection with his son’s care and that, as a result, he found it was ‘difficult to know just who was dealing with what’.

Bronwyn found it difficult to get her son’s case manager to talk to a psychiatrist about changing her son’s medication when he went ‘right downhill’.

A few carers, like Alexia, mentioned times when they felt the person being cared for desperately needed help, but the mental health practitioner they turned to did not agree: ‘[my son was] relapsing and [the case manager] used to tell me, “I just talked to him and he sounds all right”‘. Delays could also get in the way of carers getting the help they needed. Laura’s husband’s psychiatrist prescribed a change in medication but the GP said he had not received the letter about this change. Laura thought ‘the medical staff just [could not] see how important it [was]’.

Being involved in consultations with the person being cared for’s psychiatrist

Most carers thought it was important for them to be involved in some way in consultations between the person cared for and his or her psychiatrist. Many carers told us that psychiatrists often met with their loved one for only a short time, and there could be weeks or months in between visits. A few carers mentioned that the person cared for tended to say he or she was, as Elizabeth said of her son, ‘perfectly fine’ during consultations. According to some carers, like Iris, psychiatrists ‘seemed to accept whatever [the person cared for] said’ and did not take time to either seek out or take the carer’s view into account.

Some carers said they had not been involved in consultations with psychiatrists, and that they had not been consulted about the treatment options of the person being cared for. While a few carers attributed this to issues around privacy and confidentiality, the Mental Health Act 2014 (Vic) (section 346(g)) enables disclosure of information in general terms to a friend, family member or carer, providing this is not contrary to the views and preferences of the person concerned, and section 346(h) enables disclosure of information to carers where this is reasonably required for determining the nature and scope of the care to be provided. (See also How to increase carers’ participation in supporting treatment decisions, Advice for other carers and Advice for mental health practitioners).

Although Julie and her husband did attend one family meeting with their daughter’s psychiatrist, Julie received very little information about what was discussed between her daughter and the psychiatrist after that.

Some carers were allowed to attend consultations at the person cared for’s request, and a few carers described how they had communicated informally with the person cared for’s psychiatrist.

Mike said he trusted his wife’s psychiatrist. This meant Mike felt comfortable to occasionally send him an e-mail before his wife’s appointments to offer feedback regarding Mike’s perspective on how his wife had been feeling.

A few carers, like Dianne, said the person cared for’s psychiatrist or psychologist had put time aside to speak to them at the start or end of the session. Rosemary’s son’s psychiatrist was ‘so concerned’ about him at one point that he called her and said ‘I want to open the channels between the two of us. And so I’m available if you want to talk to me, and I will tell him that I’ve spoken to you’.

Carers’ experiences of the approach of psychiatrists and mental health practitioners towards them

While some carers like Elizabeth and Rosemary said some psychiatrists could be very caring, quite a few carers talked about mental health practitioners who seemed uncaring.

Laura thought medical practitioners needed to show more ‘compassion’ to carers and ‘take on board’ what carers have to say.

Some carers, like Marta, Alexia and Julie, felt practitioners, in Marta’s words, ‘put blame on’ them for the person cared for’s problems. Alexia said her son’s case manager had said she was an ‘overprotective mother’ and that her son ‘should move out’. When Julie told her daughter’s psychiatrist that her daughter was getting worse, she said he was ‘quite rude’, that she was ‘meddling’ and that her ‘anxiety … was causing a problem’.

Support for carers from psychiatrists, mental health practitioners and counsellors

Aside from support groups (see Carers’ experiences of support groups, support workers and respite care), many carers got support from their own GPs, psychiatrists, counsellors, and other mental health practitioners. Lisa was given free sessions with a psychologist through her GP and Jeannie was offered counselling through her local Community Health Organisation. Rosemary’s son’s psychiatrist asked her who she had to ‘talk to’ and told her she could ring him, which she said came as ‘a big relief’.

Mike found ‘family counselling’ helped him: ‘I can actually get out … just things that need to be said’. Julie said a ‘couple of sessions’ with a counsellor ‘put [her] on the right track for how to proceed with caring’ for her daughter. By contrast, Sasha had no ongoing counselling service in her regional area and had to go ‘quite a distance away’ for a good service (see also Carers’ experiences of caring for themselves).

Kate and her mum, who both care for Kate’s brother, both see a psychologist. Kate explained how it’s helped them deal with their ‘reaction’ to her brother’s ‘illness’.