AFTER DISCOVERING SHE WAS A YOUNG CARER: 15-YEAR OLD LUCY BECOMES A VOICE FOR CHANGE
Spurgeons Children’s Charity supports around 800 young people aged 5 to 18 through their Young Carers services in Birmingham and Wolverhampton. These young people are caring for a family member with an illness or disability.
15-year-old Lucy wants to see change in how young carers access support and for more people to develop an understanding of the realities faced by her and of others alike.
Lucy discovered the term ‘young carer’ at the beginning the pandemic as her mum’s health conditions worsened. As Lucy’s mum depended on her more and more, her teacher realised the extra responsibilities she was carrying and identified her as a young carer needing support — before this Lucy was unaware of the term.
She says, “Before my form teacher said ‘Lucy I think you’re a young carer’ I had no idea what it was, I had never heard of the term or of Young Carers Action Day — I didn’t realise that was a thing! It was pretty much just me and because people don’t talk about it very much it does make you feel like you’re alone, like it’s just you against the world. I think it’s so important that even if people aren’t registered young carers or don’t feel like they can tell anyone yet, that they know there are people like themselves.”
In October 2021 Lucy met with Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, alongside a group of other young carers.
She describes the feedback given to the Commissioner on the role schools can play in supporting young carers, “I’m quite fortunate in that I’m close with my form teacher and she spotted that I was a young carer because I was talking to her about stuff over lockdown. But aside from my form tutor, I had had no input from my school about being a young carer or how I’m coping at home. There were quite a few points raised about how schools dealt with them and how they could make more referrals and make it easier for young carers as students.”
She continues “For me it was like even if my pastoral team asked every couple of weeks how everything was going at home and if I was coping alright. Even those quick five-minute conversations in the corridor… maybe not like a massive ‘sit down let’s talk about this’ but just so you feel less isolated. It can feel quite hard when your friends don’t understand, you can feel quite alone. It would just be nice to have more people ask, ‘are you ok?’.
Describing what it was like to speak with the Commissioner alongside other young carers, Lucy says, “She seemed to understand and was really passionate about the cause. It’s one thing for people to say ‘we need to do this’ but when someone seems genuinely interested in it and passionate about what they’re going to do about it, it’s really encouraging. It makes you feel like it’s going to get done. I was really happy that someone was so willing to do it.”
Lucy’s mum suffers from a blood condition which causes early onset arthritis, among other conditions, and her symptoms worsened over the first Covid-19 lockdown. Amidst the dramatic shift to home learning, Lucy was also getting used to her added responsibilities.
“I have to help her when she’s fallen over, carry the shopping in and push the trolley. I found Covid hard because I was in the house all the time and not feeling like I was doing enough. I still find it hard that I can’t make everything better, but I can only do as much as I can.”
She continues, “It alters your relationship — fortunately I’m really close with my mum — but it’s weird how it changes. You have to change how you prioritise things like schoolwork and revision, and I found it hard to adjust. At first, I didn’t know that my mum was in pain all the time because she’d not told me, I didn’t get why she was really stressed all the time or moaning at me for not doing the chores.”
Lucy has a six-year-old brother who she also cares for when her mum needs more input.
“What’s hard is that my mum can’t do the stuff she wants to do. Before, we would go to the park and run around and climb trees. She can’t do that anymore; she struggles with things like stairs and zips.”
For Lucy, being a young carer means she doesn’t have the same freedoms as her friends and is challenged with juggling her different priorities.
“Because I’m doing GCSE’s this year, they’re always telling you that you need to study and setting more and more homework. I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s hard to prioritise and very quickly it becomes too much. I find the hardest part of it all is when you’re in the classrooms and the teachers tell you, ‘You’ve only got this long… and you’re not doing enough’. I know it’s meant to be for the general class, but I just find that really stressful. It’s hard to find the right balance between schoolwork and helping my mum and brother. I can’t just go ‘for these couple of hours I’m going to go study for a bit’ because at any minute I need to help my mum or distract my brother if she needs a break.”
She explains why it’s important for her peers to understand her circumstances: “In my group of friends, they’re all pretty understanding, but there are times when they go out and ask if I can come and I’ll have to say, ‘well I am free but I might not be able to come’. Sometimes I can’t do it and there’s no way around it because I can’t just to say to my mum ‘oh I’ll do it later’. It would be nice if more kids did have an understanding that you’re not being rude but sometimes you can’t do the same things as other kids without more planning.”
She continues, “A part of me is just anxious about what would happen to my mum while I was out, my brain just overthinks things. My mum keeps encouraging me to do stuff and be normal.”
After being referred to Spurgeons by her form teacher, Lucy was assigned a keyworker named Will, who was able to provide her with specialised support.
“We had one-to-one phone calls for 16-weeks and he asked me how my week was, if there was anything he could do to help, if there were any situations that we could work on together and deal with stress or anything I was feeling anxious about.”
She continues, “In one of the sessions he asked me if I would like to be a committee member. I thought you know what ‘why not’! My mum was always bugging me to get involved in things outside of school. I really enjoyed having the space to talk about issues and see what other people thought… you get to talk to people who are in the same or similar situations as yourself and you can see how they’re dealing with it and what they’re struggling with.”
The types of support that Young Carers can access through Spurgeons includes mentoring, educational, tailored one-to-one, transition and adjustment and trips away. Lucy reflects on the opportunities she has experienced since connecting with the children’s charity,
“It made me feel good that my mum was proud of me for all the stuff that I had done.
I don’t know how I would have gotten through Covid without speaking with my form teacher and Will at Spurgeons, because it was really difficult.”
Describing the relief of meeting with other Young Carers for a day out she says, “I don’t particularly like big groups of people, so when I said I’d like to go to Alton Towers with Spurgeons, she [mum] was really proud that I was going with people I had never met before. People don’t talk about the fact that you’re a young carer, we’re just given an opportunity to be the kids and we don’t have to worry about our other responsibilities. You just get that time to meet people you wouldn’t necessarily hang out with otherwise, so it’s cool that you get that opportunity to meet new people with no expectation around it. It was just the freedom of it.”
With Young Carers Action Day coming up on 16 March 2022, Lucy believes it’s important to start having conversations and develop understanding around the realities of being a young carer.
“Sometimes it’s extremely hard, there are days where you’re tired and you’ve not sat down until 8 o’clock at night. There’s nothing anyone can do to make your immediate situation better, but being open to having those conversations or being more aware is really important as a first step.”
She continues, “You can’t just overlook an entire group of people just because it’s not seen as normal. For some people this is just how they’ve grown up, looking after a parent or a sibling or whoever they care for. For me it was really hard because it happened so suddenly and if people just check up on friends and ask ‘hey are you ok?’, it is so important.”
Needing to balance their caring responsibilities with school can impact how a young carer envisions their future. For Lucy, her mum encourages her to think about her future and photography is both a source of relief and a passion.
“My mum is really encouraging of me going to university… but I think my dream job is to be a photographer and have an art gallery. [During lockdown] there were some days I just needed to get out of the house, we lived in a tiny house next to a forest and I’d just walk around it for an hour taking photos — it was just the break I needed.”