Tuesday, 8 February 2011

To reveal and to hide - Young Carers (interview)

Interview with Rosemary Coleman, Acting Executive Officer, Warrington Young Carers

You learn yourself through art. Children need to have art – it's self-expression.

Being a young carer makes you grow up very quickly, I've seen it in others many times and in myself. I was a young carer, my mum had agoraphobia. I've known the kids in this group of young carers ever since they were tiny, I've seen them change. How they change depends on the individual child and on the parents too. It's not just the physical job that they have to do that affects them, it's the mental pressure. That's the important part – the self.

Getting yourself up and your kids ready up and out for school everyday, it's taken for granted that we do this as adults. But I knew a little girl whose mum had started to black out – and she looked after her mum when she lost consciousness. She'd call her gran first and then the ambulance if it was needed. Can you imagine how her mind worked? The stress?

One in six kids is a young carer, it's estimated. There are seven million adult carers – but young carers are more difficult to count. They don't identify themselves because they're afraid of going into care. I ask them what's their biggest fear and they always say: “They'll take me away.” The mental health aspect of it isn't looked at. They don't think about it because it's their life. They're kids, they don't know how to reflect on it. But as a society we should try to understand.

I went to a meeting recently and this smart professional guy was there. He was saying how terrible teenagers are, unwashed and disgusting. Well, I asked him: “Which ones are frightened of saying they're carers? Which ones are signing on because they're young carers and they've no chance to go out and earn?” There are kids who wet their bed because of stress and then wash their own sheets afterwards. Kids who live with the fear of violence because their parents have drug or drink problems. The feeling of fear continues, it follows them. Fear and shame.

I was always frightened because I thought my mother would be taken away. A lot of them feel shame because they're judged by other people. They might not have clean clothes, or the latest gear. It's a pressure to get all the fashionable stuff when you're young, but it's an added pressure if you're a young carer who knows they'll NEVER have it.

The flipside to so-called self-expression through clothes is that these kids get bullied for not having the right trainers. It's an argument for school uniforms for all. Because there's a secret life going on for some kids. If I see a kid who's late for school, I think, “What's your life?” Schools have to take responsibility for this, they can't keep ignoring the problem.

In groups like this they love that finally they’ve found someone who understands. Someone they can talk to, or not as they choose. But in this room they know there’s somebody who is thinking the same things as them. We can also help get buddying started.

In a school they can buddy and support one another against bullying. The major place where the fear and isolation gets in is at school and the schools must take responsibility. Because they are very independent, capable kids, many young carers are in the middle streams at school even when they’re struggling with life. They’re not high achievers, not remedial. These are exactly the kind of kids who get ignored in a school system. They’re seen to be coping and that’s good enough. No, the schools need to change, they need to try to understand.

I knew a six year old whose school kept ringing home and were repeatedly told: “She’s sick, she can’t come to school.” Actually, she was looking after grandma who was very ill, so that the mum could still work. That six-year-old’s education was out the window. The mum and the school mismanaged the situation and it cost that little girl her education.

These are complex young people. Despite problems, many of them love what they do, because they're doing it for mum, dad, brother, sister. Their protectiveness is second to none. And even though they'll dodge questions at school that endanger the family as they see it, they are also very honest. Through listening, I've learnt a lot from this group as they've come to trust me and opened up. What these youngsters have taught me is to speak openly about my own life as an adult. Self-expression again.

Some young carers have a lot of drive because of all the responsibilities they manage. They have the ability to be powerfully independent. And of course they are very good carers. In later life they’ll often take on other caring responsibilities. People can sense it in them, sniff them out almost. You’ll find someone whose been a young carer will end up looking after family, friends, neighbours – and they’ll have done it their whole life.

Caring – most people have a feeling for it, you'll have done it for your mum or dad, for your family members at some point. But not full-time, not for your whole childhood. The effect is massive. Lost childhoods. Lost education. The education goes downhill because they're thinking of home. Mobile phone use often isn't allowed in school so they'll bunk off to make a call home, checking if everything's OK. Then they'll get in trouble with the school and won't say why they did it, for fear they get put into care.

Anger – a lot of young carers become bullies. One girl I know, as her mum became more and more ill, the daughter started hitting out at others, though it wasn’t her personality normally. Sometimes people think that they can hide the fear by becoming someone else, someone less vulnerable. Mental health can be affected. Keep it all secret! There's a lot of self-harm among young carers, a lot of depression and yet many would say that they wouldn’t change their life, they see how valuable they are to their family.

They’re actually incredibly valuable to society as a whole. The social services need young carers. If there’s going to be less help in the home because of all these government cutbacks, then groups like young carers become vital, they’re providing a service. In this group, they’re becoming more and more proud of themselves. Depending on the illness of the person they’re looking after, most of them will become adult carers too, which can affect confidence. That’s a tough transition because they’re no longer a cute little kid with people saying “Ah bless, isn’t she good.”

In this support group we try to help that transition. Young carers don’t see it coming, but we see the pattern. Relationships will fail because of commitment. They won’t be able to keep down a job, because of the needs of whoever’s being cared for. Young people need support through this, it affects them deeply. We all go on suicide prevention courses in our office, even our administrator, because she answers the phone and you don’t know who will phone or what state they’ll be in.

Childhood, it’s often not there. It’s taken away from young carers – and the playing that goes with it. That’s where making art comes in. It gives back a little play, a little bit of childhood. They’re allowed time for self-expression, to discover themselves. It’s complex. Some of these kids have a great life. With some, I see great sadness behind the eyes. They want someone to understand. Once you’ve gained their trust and respect they’ll open up to you. Art is a great place to be. You can be yourself, it gives you room to reveal and to hide. Making art, these kids can tell you themselves without having to tell you.

(Interview conducted by Philip Davenport, 2011)

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