Difficulties for young carers.

Imagine you are a young carer and your mother with  Multiple Sclerosis falls over and needs lifting and sorting. You and your brother are tired as she needed help in the night as well. Your dad left years ago and so there’s only you and your 9 year old brother who wants his breakfast, his football boots and a pack lunch before school.

For some children, taking care of other family members is a natural part of life. Young carers support relatives with profound disability, mental health problems, chronic physical illness or problems of addiction. The truth is that, mostly, they want to help and see it as a duty—they love their parent and accept that it falls to them to provide the care. The danger is that in doing so they may lose some or all of their childhood. The average age of a young carer is 12. Bernardo’s do a lot of work with young carers and they gathered the following statistics. Young carers are children and young people under 18 who provide regular and on-going care and emotional support to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, disabled or misuses substances. The 2001 census identified 175,000 young carers in the UK, with 13,000 caring for more than 50 hours per week. The 2011 census identified 178,000 young carers in England and Wales alone; an 83% increase in the number of young carers aged 5 to 7 years and a 55% increase in the number of children caring who are aged 8 to 9 years.

Around three million children in the UK have a family member with a disability. Around a quarter of a million live with a parent who is misusing a Class A drug and 920,000 are children of alcoholic parents. Research by Loughborough University also found that the average age of young carers is 12, but they can be as young as five years old and 86% are of compulsory school age.

Of course it saves the country a lot of money and effort in the short term and these ‘hidden’ carers are the sacrifice we pay for our lack of vision. The tens of thousands of children who lose out on schooling, careers, health and future prospects because we don’t allocate enough money or resources to support them. We rely on the voluntary sector (again) to come up with the necessary. Volunteers are relied on for activities and support and probably spend a disproportionate amount of time recruiting and training as opposed to delivering the service. It seems, listening to local and national opinion, that we’re just scratching the surface. Large numbers of young carers are not getting the help they could because they believe that what they do is normal or a duty. They don’t see themselves in need or deserving of support. Many wouldn’t recognise the label of young carer or think that what they do is extraordinary. To them it’s just life and they get on with it.

Often it’s not just the physical care that drains them—personal hygiene, washing, cooking, housework etc- but the emotional cost of dealing with chronic illness, depression, drinking, drug taking and guilt.

School gets missed and qualifications fade away. A common experience is being bullied for being different or having fun made of family problems. Physical injuries from lifting and stress related emotional issues are a regular part of young lives and, in many cases, poverty adds to the burden. The stress of caring, often in traumatic situations, takes its toll. We saw it recently with the tragic suicide of a teenage carer.

Young Carers Projects do a great job offering support with activities, newsletters and advocacy as well as practical skills such as cooking or claiming benefits. Social services do what they can with the resources available but this is a central government failing. It seems an extraordinary stupidity to waste the lives of tens of thousands of productive future citizens because they’re unlikely to make much fuss in the scheme of things.

It would be good to think that people could help some more young carers get up in the morning and get on with growing up and fulfilling their own potential without guilt or having to take on responsibilities way beyond their years.

It would be even better if common sense prevailed and more hard cash was provided by government to deal with this embarrassment.

April 4th ‘This is my childhood’ conference

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