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Depression a risk for post-ICU caregivers

Researchers Margaret Herridge and Jill Cameron stand in front of the University Health Network sign

Caregivers have different, unique needs, say professors Margaret Herridge (left) and Jill Cameron (right) (Photo by Carolyn Morris)

University of Toronto researchers have found that caregivers are at a high risk of developing clinical depression up to a year after their critically ill patients leave the intensive care unit (ICU).

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine on May 12, highlights the need to consider the mental health of caregivers in post-ICU care.

The research was led by Professor Jill Cameron of the department of occupational science and occupational therapy. She notes that while caregiver assistance can be beneficial to patients, it may have negative consequences for those who provide it. That can include poor health-related quality of life, emotional distress, caregiver burden, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  

“In the world of critical illness, a lot of research has focused on making sure people survive – and now that people are surviving, we need to ask ourselves, what does quality of life and wellbeing look like afterwards for both patients and caregivers,” says Cameron, who is also an Affiliate Scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, which is part of the University Health Network (UHN). “We need to intervene and support caregivers of all patients, not just the ‘sickest’ patients. Caregivers are not a uniform body of individuals – they have different needs unique to their caregiving situation.”

See the Philadelphia Inquirer article

See the U.S. News & World Report article

From 2007-2014, caregivers of patients who received seven or more days of mechanical ventilation in an ICU across 10 Canadian university-affiliated hospitals were given self-administered questionnaires to assess caregiver and patient characteristics, caregiver depression symptoms, psychological wellbeing, health-related quality of life, sense of control over life, and impact of providing care on other activities. Assessments occurred seven days and three, six and 12-months after ICU discharge.

The study found that most caregivers reported high levels of depression symptoms, which commonly persisted up to one year and did not improve in some. Caregiver sense of control, impact on caregivers’ everyday lives, and social support had the largest relationships with the outcomes. Caregivers’ experienced better health outcomes when they were older, caring for a spouse, had higher income, better social support, sense of control, and caregiving had less of a negative impact on their everyday lives.

Poor caregiver outcomes may compromise patients’ rehabilitation potential and sustainability of home care. Identifying risk factors for caregiver distress is an important first step to prevent more suffering and allow ICU survivors and caregivers to regain active and fulfilling lives.

This study is part of Phase one of the RECOVER Program, a multi-phase project, involving 10 intensive care units across Canada, co-led by Cameron and Professor Margaret Herridge of the department of medicine and director of critical care research at UHN’s Toronto General Hospital. The project is a collaboration with the Canadian Critical Care Trials Group. It aims to identify risk factors for patients and families with the goal of designing rehabilitation models to improve outcomes.

A parallel companion study evaluating patients led by Herridge has been published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. This project showed that patients who had been on a mechanical ventilator for one-week could be divided into disability risk groups using age and length-of-stay in an intensive care unit and that these groups determine one-year recovery and illuminate the details of functional disability in daily life.

“These findings will help patients and families make vital decisions about embarking on and also continuing treatment in an intensive care unit,” says Herridge.

“We need to educate patients, families and the public about what we can realistically offer in terms of functional outcome and quality of life for those patients with complex critical illness and who may come to the ICU in a debilitated state or may be older. We want people to understand and make informed choices about their care, given their circumstances.”

The next phase of this research will focus on developing models of rehabilitation to optimize patient recovery and a program for caregivers to better prepare them for their caregiving role, including education and information on community-based resources, access to home care, and how they can draw on social and psychological support.