I read with interest this week, a moving story of a girl who has a mother with schizoaffective disorder and spina bifida. She spent much of her time growing up hiding the fact she was caring for her mother, and it wasn’t until the age of 17 that she realised she wasn’t alone and could seek and find help.
Imagine growing up with such a weight of responsibility on your shoulders as a child. And as a parent, constantly worrying about the responsibility carried by your child. Imagine the relief when you discover there is support out there and you can get help through the local authority or specific charities that provide respite care and support to both you and your child.
Now imagine, that instead of both a physical and mental illness, your parent has a mental illness but not a physical condition. There are over 3 million families and children in this situation. And there is no support. On paper, they don’t exist.
Children of parents with mental illness do not automatically fall into the young carer bracket because they don’t see themselves as carers in the usual sense. They do not want to expose their family to the negative shame and stigma still associated with mental illness in our society by disclosing their caring role. So, the case study highlighted the physical illness (the spina bifida) but not the mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) because we can talk about that and she can get support because of that.
The young person caring for a parent with a mental illness also has the weight of responsibility on their shoulders, often caring for younger siblings as well as their mother. They wouldn’t receive an explanation about their mother’s illness, nor would they have any respite care or family support. These young people might have heard that “it runs in families” and worry they might “catch” the illness, because no one took the time to explain otherwise.
And yet, there are over 3 million children in this position right now in the UK. That number won’t go away. It continues to rise. And the cost of doing nothing does too. So why are we failing this group? Why aren’t we giving them the same support as a young carer who looks after a parent with a physical illness? Why is there still this battle to get mental health recognised and supported in the same way physical health is?
Just because you can’t see a mental illness doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just because you can’t (or won’t) see there is a child caring for their parent with a mental illness, doesn’t mean they are not there. They are just hidden and we’re working to make sure they no longer are.