Family and carer mental health

Having a loved one in the ICU can be a traumatic experience.

Family and carers can experience a huge number of emotions. Feeling emotions such as grief, guilt, depression, anxiety and fear is normal. It is your body's natural response to traumatic events.

Grief and guilt

Grief is what you feel when you lose something that is important to you. If your loved one is in ICU it is normal to grieve. You may feel helpless. You might be feeling guilty that you have done something to cause this.

The truth is that you can do everything “right” and your loved one can still end up on ICU. Blaming yourself or others is not helpful for you or your family member.

Look after yourself and ensure that you eat and drink and are kind to yourself. This will help your body to cope with the initial shock that you have experienced.

Depression, anxiety and acute stress

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between feeling tired and feeling anxiety and/or depression. You may be keeping up with a busy schedule of driving back and forth to the hospital. You may be juggling managing things at the hospital and at home. You may also be a long way from home and staying in accommodation near the hospital.

It’s understandable if you’re feeling emotional and exhausted. It's also important for you to recognise signs of depression and anxiety and know what to do if these symptoms persist.

With your loved one in ICU, you may be learning new routines. You may be washing your hands hundreds of times and watching monitors and equipment. You may feel you can't rest for a second because you have to keep track of everything.

Anxiety can feel like….

  • nervousness – you’re aware of all the things that can go wrong and feel like you’re always waiting for the next bad thing to happen
  • fearfulness – you’re afraid of what is happening and worried about what your family member is feeling
  • anger and irritation – you’re mad at the people around you and/or the situation and can't stop feeling annoyed

You may also feel…

  • frightened – you may have witnessed terrible and terrifying things
  • disconnected – you might feel like this isn’t real and that these things can’t possibly be happening
  • surprised by what you are feeling – a sound or smell might trigger an overwhelming reaction. It may make you feel like you’re reliving something that already happened

Where to go for support

While these feelings are normal it's important to recognise if they are becoming a problem for you. Talk with your family friends and your spiritual leader if you have one. Don't wait to reach out for extra support if you are worried about your symptoms.

You can reach out to your health care team in the hospital. Let the staff know and ask to chat with the social worker.

You can also reach out to your general practitioner who may also refer you to a counsellor or psychologist.

Find Support

Related topics

This topic was reviewed by an intensive care medicine specialist in July 2022.

Skip to content