Being a young carer or coping with a parent with a mental illness will have a significant impact on a young person’s school life – both the academic and the social aspects. In the long-term this has been shown to significantly affect a person’s life chances. Young people often tell us how having a parent who is mentally ill was missed or misunderstood by teachers, in both primary and secondary school. School staff can be alert to signs such as lots of unexplained absences, lateness, problems completing homework, having the correct uniform or kit, parents not being able to attend meetings, tiredness, distraction and signs of anxiety.
A school that is understanding and responsive can do a great deal to help. It is crucial that the whole school has a positive ethos about mental health and an openness to talking about mental illness. This is beneficial for all children and staff, not just carers and the children who have a parent with a mental illness. Being open about the problem helps to reduce the stigma and isolation experienced by the children and reduces the risk of bullying. We have been working with this issue through Our Time’s ‘Who Cares?’ programme which has given us the perfect vehicle for addressing the problem, not simply being aware of it, although that is the first step. The ‘Who Cares?’ programme has given us the confidence and skills to support the children and has been positively received by students and staff.
We have used assemblies to raise awareness and to allow the affected children and young people to identify themselves and get the support they need. This has been a vital part of addressing the problem as young people often think their situation is normal or not worthy of attention. It also raises awareness in the wider school community, and working with the issue has had the further advantage of building understanding and empathy across the whole year group and the school community.
Young carers groups who are attuned to the issue of parental mental illness have proved to be a significant support. Here is what young people tell us about their school’s young carers group:
“It’s really awesome – to do things that normal kids do and to chill out and not be judged by anyone. The fact that I’m getting remembered is really cool and they know I’m there.”
“It’s also having the time – it’s at the beginning of the week so anything that’s gone on at the weekend we can talk about. It helps with people’s mindsets, with stress, it’s not just about having fun. Other groups you feel you’ve got to go but this one doesn’t feel like that. If I can’t face people I don’t have to go.”
Young carers develop many strengths and skills, are excellent at supporting one another and in devising the support they need in school. It can be as simple as providing a quiet room with a sofa. Schools being willing to listen and respond can be transformative.