There are 700,000 young carers, and an estimated 370,000 young adult carers in the UK. These are people aged as low as eight to the age of 25 who care for loved ones whose lives are crippled by illness. Rianna can be located within those numbers. Now in her early 20s, Rianna has been a caregiver to her mother for over ten years. We’re sitting in her university library. It’s here that we begin a conversation that provides insight into what life is like for young carers all over the UK.
Rianna’s mother has suffered with mental illness for as long as Rianna can remember. Her birth in September 1996 triggered an episode of postnatal depression, which later developed into Bipolar and Schizophrenia. Rianna tells me that her mother was her introduction to the concept of mental health.
“I didn’t know much until I learned about my mum’s illnesses.” She tells me. However, mental illness in Rianna’s family didn’t begin and end with her mother. “My granddad actually suffered from Schizophrenia. Then I learned that my mum’s younger brother, my uncle Wayne has it as well. And then I have my uncle Roger, he also suffers from it, and I’ve got multiple cousins that also suffer from it. So it’s very genetic, but my mom was obviously the first introduction to it for me.”
A former bank manager and single mother of two, Rianna’s mother found herself unable to work very early on. By the time Rianna had started primary school, she had begun to care for her mother full time, alongside her older sister.
For young carers, the responsibilities attached to caring for a loved one can be any and everything. Regardless of the illness, carers are often responsible for the overall wellbeing of those they care for, the extent to which is often dictated by the severity of the illness. For Rianna and her sister, an overwhelming level of housework, shopping and cooking for the household was juggled with school work.
“I had to grow up very quickly.” Rianna recalls. “If my sister wasn’t there, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
She remembers the diligence that surrounded her mother’s medication in the early days, another high-ranking responsibility that fell to the two young girls. “In the morning, it would be me because I was the early bird of the house, and then in the evenings it would be my sister. At that time, she was only taking four tablets, so I would do the two in the morning and my sister would do the two at night. Then eventually it went up to six tablets. For the last five and a half years she’s been on nine tablets, which can get a bit hectic.”
When Rianna’s sister left home at the age of 18, she was left with a sudden surge of undiluted responsibility at the age of 11. The increase in medication signified that her mother’s situation was worsening. I reminisce on the simplicity that ruled my world at a similar age. I was left to be joyfully juvenile at the beginning of my adolescence, anything that may have forced me to grow up prematurely was shielded from me by the adults in my life. I attempt to imagine what could be described as parenting a parent at the ripe age of 11.
‘Young Minds’ – a charity dedicated to the wellbeing of young people found that young carers miss an average of 48 school days because of their responsibilities, while 56% of young adult carers in college or university admit to struggling because of their caring role. I ask Rianna how she’s managed to keep so many plates spinning- being sole carer of her mother while gaining an education and going through the notions as a young person.
“I don’t think I ever juggled it. People would say ‘well done! You’ve done this. You’ve done that. You’ve actually looked after your mum,’ but I never had a choice. I’ve never experienced a life that’s different to this. She’s my life. My mum is my home, so I don’t feel like it was a matter of me balancing it. When you’re younger, you have certain things in place like secondary school which is Monday to Friday- a set time. You’ve got your classes and stuff like that, but as you get a bit older, you start having your own relationships, you start doing your own thing. As I’ve gotten older, I have found it harder to juggle.”
I wondered whether the people and institutions in Rianna’s life were aware of her situation in the earlier years. She tells me that while members of her extended family knew and ensured that she was signed up to a local scheme intended to support young carers, she fought hard to keep the details of her home life from both her primary and secondary school.
“I literally did everything in my power to hide it. Not even my best friend knew my mum had depression, let alone all the other mental illnesses she was dealing with.”
According to the charity ‘carers trust’, 68% of young carers are being bullied in schools. Many feel isolated and singled out by their situation. I suspect that this was the driving force behind Rianna’s decision to keep her carer role a secret from her teachers and peers. She confirms this.
“I didn’t want to be bullied. I didn’t want people to treat me differently. But I also think it’s because I didn’t understand it. I was embarrassed of what she was going through, and why my mum wasn’t like everybody else’s mum. Even when she would call me, like when she was first relapsing, she would call and the stuff she would say wouldn’t make sense. No one else had to deal with stuff like that.”
Now 23 and at university, Rianna has found more ease in sharing her difficulties with friends and teachers as a young adult carer. It has meant lecturers on her urban dance practice course understand her needs.
While many would argue that more needs to be done for young people with such heavy responsibilities, those that are leading the way in the assistance of young carers are making necessary impact. Carers trust, Barnardos and Young Minds are just a handful of charities offering emotional support and safe spaces for young carers.The charities source funding from events like ‘young carers day’ to take young carers on outings in an effort to allow them to escape their realities, even if it’s just for a day.
The scheme Rianna’s family signed her and her sister up for was similar in nature. The ‘young carers of Brent council’ would bring young carers from Rianna’s borough together to help tackle the isolation many of them were likely to be experiencing. They would meet in community centers and attend outings together.
“It was really good. I was able to go out, to Thorpe Park trips, to the cinema. We would do stuff that my mum couldn’t do with me.”
However, while these experiences were intended to be positive, for Rianna, it only homed in on how unorthodox her childhood was. “It really singled us out as children. They would pick us up in the minibus, and it was like, you know you’re the same as all of these kids.”
Caring for a loved one with a mental illness at such a tender age can have extensive influence on the mental health of the carer. A GP patient survey found that 39% of young adult carers reported experience of anxiety or depression compared with 28% of young people without a caring responsibility. When you consider the theft of a healthy childhood and then the consequential absence of experiences necessary to personal development, these figures don’t have much of a shock factor.
While the government has made recent pledges to pay more attention to the plight of young carers, you can’t help but sympathise with people like Rianna, who have already been through the worst of it under the government’s negligence. I ask her what the hardest thing has been caring for her mother over the years.
“Not knowing my mum. Hopefully one day I will. But there are times when I feel like my mum will pass on, and I would have never known who she was. I don’t know what her favorite colour is, or what she likes to do. That’s probably the hardest thing to come to terms with. I’ve lived with her my whole life, and there are people out there who knew her before, who know her better than me.”
Words and featured image by Abigail Scantlebury