‘We must recognise the essential role young carers play’

Group of young carers at the beach

Suffolk Family Carers helps provide respite support for young carers so that they can enjoy typical childhood activities like going to the seaside - Credit: Suffolk Family Carers

As part of the East of England Co-op's #EastTogether campaign, Jess Searle from Suffolk Family Carers explains why it is so important to recognise the vital contribution of young carers.

One in four adults provides unpaid care to an older, disabled or ill relative or friend in the UK today – an estimated 13.6 million people. And this situation has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with a 9% rise in the number of adults providing unpaid care since the coronavirus outbreak began.

But it is not just adults providing unpaid care – which is why a local charity is raising awareness of the contribution of young carers juggling their education and childhood with the responsibilities of caring for a loved one.

Suffolk Family Carers is a local charity that has provided support, advice and guidance for unpaid carers for more than 30 years. Working closely with partners in the Department of Health and Social Care, Suffolk County Council and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), the charity helps family carers of all ages get the support they need to live fuller lives through its helpline, online chat, mental health services and social prescribing.

Young Carers project manager Jess Searle

Young Carers project manager Jess Searle - Credit: Archant

“The support we provide to young people with a caring role is vital because it gives them recognition for the fantastic support that they provide for their family member,” says Young Carers project manager Jess Searle.

Young carers are those aged under 18 years old providing unpaid care to a family member who is disabled, physically or mentally ill, or misuses substances. Young carers may be responsible for tasks within the home such as cleaning and caring for siblings but they may also have an emotional caring role, while juggling their caring role with education and career aspirations.

Suffolk Family Carers offers respite support to young carers, which involves networking with local organisations to provide opportunities so that they can put their caring responsibilities aside for a few hours and simply enjoy their childhood.

“Their caring role can make it very difficult to do things that other children may take for granted, like going to the beach and having fun,” Jess says. “Sometimes young people feel guilty for resenting their caring role. It might be that they’re comparing themselves to their peers, they might worry that they’re missing out on opportunities, they may have worries about the future and how they’re going to cope.”

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The Young Carers service offers one-to-one interventions and peer support to help alleviate these anxieties. “They really benefit from having someone to talk to,” Jess says. “Having that shared understanding and sense of belonging with our staff and other young carers – people who understand what it’s like – is really key.”

The Young Carers team collaborated with research associate Katie Tyrell from the University of Suffolk to study how early identification and intervention can reduce the impact of the caring role on young children between the ages of five and nine.

Wellbeing and personal development initiatives, such as the Young Carers Peer Leader mentoring programme, aim to develop confidence and self-esteem. “These programmes recognise their skills and aspirations for the future, so they’re not defined by their caring role – they are so much more than that.”

The East of England Co-op supported the Young Carers team to develop a new programme for children aged eight years old and under to build resilience and manage caring responsibilities. Suffolk Family Carers also received funding for a new part-time position to help unpaid carers complete paperwork for welfare benefits to which they are entitled.

During the pandemic, Suffolk Family Carers adapted its services and migrated activities online, including wellbeing check-ins, fitness classes, online cooking lessons and craft activity packs. “We’re really proud that there's never been a break in our service throughout the pandemic. From the day the first lockdown started, we’ve carried on and transferred everything online.”

Suffolk Family Carers volunteer and young carer in woods

The East of England Co-op supported the Young Carers team to develop a new programme for children aged eight years old and under to build resilience and manage caring responsibilities - Credit: Archant

A recent survey from the Carers Trust found that 58% of young carers felt the amount of time spent caring had increased since the beginning of the pandemic.

“The sense of isolation and the responsibilities of their caring role really did escalate for many,” Jess explains. “I recall the mother of a seven-year-old carer who said that when her son came to one of our online scavenger hunts with peers his own age, it was the first time he had interacted with another child in seven weeks.”

Jess says it is more important than ever to acknowledge the crucial social role that unpaid young carers play, while providing opportunities to assist their development.

“It’s about amplifying the voice of young carers and letting them know that they're not alone. Many of us will experience being a caregiver at some point in our lives, so I'd encourage everyone to be curious and recognise the essential role that family carers play.

“If you've got a friend, family member or neighbour that might need help, please signpost them to Suffolk Family Carers. We will help them recognise their role as a carer and help them get the support they need.”

For more information, please visit www.suffolkfamilycarers.org

Watch more episodes from the #EastTogether series at www.eastofengland.coop/easttogether

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