Direct interventions may help reduce psychological distress in carers of the terminally ill


Caring for someone who is terminally ill can often lead to considerable personal distress. In some cases caregivers may suffer from hopelessness and negative mood, in others they may experience anxiety disorders, clinical depression or other mental or physical health problems.

This Cochrane systematic review assesses the effects of supportive interventions that aim to improve the psychological and physical health of informal caregivers of patients in the terminal phase of their illness.

The review includes 11 randomised controlled trials involving 1,836 caregiving participants. The trials included quite a wide range of mental health conditions and interventions, which may have obscured some of the results.

Overall the evidence found was fairly low-quality.

Here’s what they found:

  • Interventions that directly support the family and/or friends help them to cope emotionally, and may help them to cope with their role in caring and improve their quality of life
  • There were few assessments of the impact of the interventions on physical health; one study found overall no difference in sleep improvement
  • No study looked at whether the interventions increased or decreased the carers’ health service use or looked for potential harms, although higher levels of family conflict was identified in some participants in one trial
  • Interventions that aimed to help support the family and/or friends indirectly via patient care, may also help them cope emotionally
  • There were no assessments on whether the indirect interventions helped them cope with their role in caring, improved quality of life, increased or decreased their health service use, or had potential harms
  • In one of these trials there was no difference in caregiver physical health between those whose friend or relative had received the additional patient care, and those who had not
  • The findings of some studies included in this review may be at risk of bias, because they under-report key design features and may have been conducted poorly

The reviewers concluded:

There is evidence that supportive interventions may help reduce caregivers’ psychological distress. These findings suggest that practitioners should enquire about the concerns of caregivers and should consider that they may benefit from additional support. There is, however, a need for further research to explore the benefits identified, and to assess the interventions’ effects on physical health, and potential harms. Trials need to report their methods fully.

Candy B, Jones L, Drake R, Leurent B, King M. Interventions for supporting informal caregivers of patients in the terminal phase of a disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD007617. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007617.pub2.

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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