16-YEAR-OLD ‘THOMAS’ SHEDS LIGHT ON THE COVID-19 IMPACT ON YOUNG CARERS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF EARLY IDENTIFICATION.
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.
16-year-old Thomas* from Wolverhampton has been caring for his mum since he was nine. Living with severe depression and anxiety, his mum regularly depended on Thomas to step in for her over the previous seven years. Thomas also helps to care for his two younger brothers aged eight and nine and his two younger sisters aged three and nine months. School attendance is low for Thomas and his brothers. This is because supporting himself and his siblings to get motivated and ready for school is often too big a task on top of his other responsibilities.
With GCSE examinations this year and in the absence of a conducive work-environment at home, Thomas struggles to prioritise his studies and his mental health has suffered. Reducing his caring responsibilities due to exam pressures along with aspirations to develop as an individual, he feels caught between the priorities of his caring role and progressing his education.
He says: “I don’t really focus on myself too much and I don’t take pride in myself anymore. I’m struggling with a lot of things in school, my personal life and at home. I don’t have time to do my studies… I want to start to move on with my life and at the same time, I don’t want to.”
Since being referred to Spurgeons Young Carers services, Thomas was assigned a support worker who advocated for him to transfer to a different school which supports Young Carers however the first Covid-19 lockdown began before the transfer was completed. In between schools and with no facilities at home to access online learning, Thomas missed a year of education and his predicted grades have since dropped from A’s to D’s. He sheds light on the position he now finds himself in,
“I was on track for A’s and more if I worked hard. But, at the moment, I’m achieving a D. I know I’ve got the knowledge… the absence of school during the pandemic had a massive impact on my education. But in an ideal world, I’d like to get studying at home, to be able to have that motivation and endurance in myself, to push myself to do this work at home and concentrate, but it’s not an environment that I can do that in.”
For Thomas and many other Young Carers throughout the U.K, Covid-19 lockdowns exasperated existing academic and mental health pressures. A recent survey reveals that 40% of young carers say their mental health is worse since Coronavirus and 67% are more worried about the future. Another survey on the impact of the crisis on carers has reported 80% of Young Carers who responded felt more lonely or isolated since the start of the pandemic, in addition to the existing isolation they often already experience.
Speaking of the pandemic’s impact on Young Carers Thomas says: “I know I speak for many Young Carers across the country when I say that Covid affected us a lot. The most challenging thing about it was not having that online access and being at home all the time. I was having to carry the family that much more than before when at least I had that break of going into school.”
Considering the importance of a collaborative approach across support services for Young Carers, Spurgeons advocate for greater support structures in the school environment, including the introduction of appointed Young Carer Leads. Reporting on the limited awareness in schools, Angie Jones, Children’s Services Lead for Spurgeons says:
“There is a general misconception about what a Young Carer is. We ask ‘what is a Young Carer?’ in every school we visit and young people will answer, ‘it’s a person who has had a baby really young.’ It isn’t until someone [identifies] that a young person is caring for their family at home that they realise they’re different and it isn’t what every child does. Unfortunately, in schools, in society, there’s still so much raising awareness that needs to happen because people don’t understand how Young Carers are having to live and the impact it can have on someone – how different their life and their choices can be compared to other young people who don’t have those responsibilities.”
For Thomas, his new school is aware of his status as a Young Carer and due to his ADHD are also accommodating his additional learning needs. Other Young Carers across the U.K stay ‘hidden’ out of embarrassment with peers or fear that they or their siblings will be separated from their parent(s).
Speaking on the difference it has made to have support in place from school and Spurgeons, Thomas says,
“[School] offered me a smaller, quieter environment to work in… just a space to get concentrated. I really enjoy the meetings, coaching and trips out with Spurgeons, because I get to see life from other people’s perspectives and interact with people that are struggling like me, I feel a bit more comfortable with them, compared to when I’m out with friends that have a different day to day life and so don’t understand the things that I go through or why I’m the way I am. I’ve made a few decent friends out of the Spurgeons activities…”
In October 2021 Thomas met with Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, alongside a group of other Young Carers.
He says: “… It was nice hearing what other young carers had to go through and knowing that I’m not the only one who feels and experiences these things and that my opinions on this whole topic are the same as those of other Young Carers. I also felt recognised by the Commissioner, which felt important.”
Thomas’s feedback to the Commissioner included the early identification of Young Carers, “It’s recognising Young Carers before they know that they are Young Carers. For me, I was doing things from the age of 9 up until 13 without realising it was not part of a normal childhood. It’s important within the education system to notice certain behaviours, if kids arrive later or are tired and exhausted, those traits are going to tell a teacher ‘Okay, something’s going on a home.’”
Having worked in several part-time jobs gaining essential experience and out of a passion to protect and look after people, Thomas is currently applying for an extended Public Service Diploma and aspires to join the Police Force in London within the SCO19 Specialist Firearms Unit.
As Young Carers Action Day approached on the 16th of March, supporting organisations came together to raise both awareness and funds, and to appeal to the UK Government for more help to be given to Young Carers. Spurgeons specific aim is to ensure that Young Carers can aspire to achieve their individual goals.
*Real name not used to protect identity.