Revealed: what it’s like to be a young carer in Scotland

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Study looks at the impact caring has on young people's mental health

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21st February 2017 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

A new study maps out the day-to-day experiences of young carers in Scotland.

The project – called coping is difficult, but I feel proud – looks at the impact caring has on their mental health and wellbeing.

It is the first of its kind in Scotland to match young carers and their perceptions against a comparable sample of young people without caring responsibilities.

Commissioned in partnership with Carers Trust Scotland with the support of Scottish Young Carers Services Alliance, the study by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, surveyed 238 young carers across the country.

The research found that young carers with the highest caring responsibilities – between a third and a quarter of respondents – tend to report more negative health effects than those with lower levels of caring. They are generally less happym report more stress-related issues, and are more likely to report sleep difficulties.

Other findings from the survey include that one in four young carers are looking after more than one person in their household and young carers are in a lower socio-economic group when compared with the main young population.

This may be because there is generally poorer health and wellbeing in lower socio-economic groups or that in those instances where a parent is being cared for, the fact that one of the adults in the family is not working may have impacted on the family’s socio-economic status.

However, being a young carer is not all negative and in fact some young carers have greater feelings of self-worth than their counterparts who do not have caring responsibilities.

Those with the highest caring responsibilities are more at risk in terms of their mental health and wellbeing

The most common activity reported by young carers, relates to spending time with the person they care for, followed by undertaking household tasks.

Forty per cent of young carers have to either dress or undress the person they care for at least occasionally, with financial and more intimate caring tasks undertaken less frequently.

Tam Baillie, children and young people’s commissioner for Scotland, said: “In comparing the day-to-day lives of young carers in Scotland with those who don’t have caring responsibilities, this report shows that those with the highest caring responsibilities are more at risk in terms of their mental health and wellbeing, which can have a knock-on effect on other parts of their lives.

“It’s therefore vital that the new mental health strategy, which is due to be published by Scottish Government, ensures that all young people, especially young carers, have access to appropriate mental health services.”

Many young carers felt positive about and took pride in their caring role, feeling that it contributed to their self-esteem. Even so, although many reported having numerous friends, around two-thirds said they feel “left out of things” at least some of the time.

Dr Ross Whitehead, research fellow at the University of St Andrews, said: “The report reveals both the positive and negative aspects of being a young carer. The positive includes an apparent ability for caring responsibilities to boost a young carer’s overall life satisfaction, which may ‘override’ the otherwise negative impact of young carers’ socio-economic background.

“However, it also reveals that young carers have a significantly higher incidence of psychosomatic symptoms like headaches and low mood. Separate analysis revealed that within the group of young carers, it is those with the greatest number of caring responsibilities that are most susceptible to these symptoms.”

Support services provide essential networks for young carers. Just over a quarter (27%) of respondents had accessed counselling support in the past year although the quality of that support was not explored within the research.

The survey also indicated that being able to talk to someone who really listens and understands their situation is important to coping, as well as having time away from caring to do fun things, such as attending young carers’ groups.

Karen Martin, mental health development coordinator at Carers Trust works with Scottish Young Carer Services Alliance. She said: “One aspect of the report which we were pleased to note was the importance which younger carers placed on school in their life. This may be because it is a place where they can get a break from caring or because it offers the opportunity to be with other young people.

“Either way, it gives much needed impetus for improving and increased partnership working between school and young carers’ services, to make sure the most vulnerable aren’t being missed.”

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