SCIE Research briefing 24: Experiences of children and young people caring for a parent with a mental health problem
By Diane Roberts, Mim Bernard, Gabriela Misca and Emma Head
Published May 2008
Introduction - What is the issue?
Children and young people with caring responsibilities are often referred to as ‘young carers’ and this is the term used throughout the briefing. This briefing focuses on the experiences of children and young people under 18 years of age caring for a parent or parents defined as having mental health problems that are ‘serious’ or ‘severe’, and ‘enduring’. It does not consider ‘dual diagnosis’ or ‘substance misuse’, as these topics are scheduled to be the subject of future SCIE briefings. A number of issues also arise from notions of ‘safeguarding’ children and young people but ‘safeguarding’ is not the primary focus of this briefing and is therefore discussed only briefly and from the perspective of the young carer. In addition, the nature and effectiveness of interventions or services are outside the scope of this briefing. These are currently the subject of a systematic review being conducted for SCIE by the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York. Comments on interventions and services are, therefore, confined to the practical and emotional impacts of services as they are experienced by young carers.
It is important to note that the definition of ‘young carer’ varies across the literature and is contested for a number of reasons. These include:
- the fact that an all-encompassing definition of a young carer as someone ‘under 18’, includes very young children as well as teenagers
- whether, in principle, a child can or should care for a parent
- whether those under 18 should be allowed to adopt the role
- whether the definition is sufficiently inclusive, as some caring roles are difficult to define
- whether ‘formal’ social care provision is better placed to provide the necessary services
- whether labelling care activity in this way intrinsically diminishes its value.
The 2001 Census highlights the existence of some six million carers in the UK, with 175,000 being defined as ‘young carers’. This figure is likely to be a substantial underestimate, not least because for many children and young people their caring role is hidden and they are not identified as ‘carers’, either formally or by their own self-definition. Moreover, the 2004 report on Young Carers in the UK shows that nearly a third provide care for someone with a mental health problem, usually a parent and, most commonly, a mother. This report also reveals that 114,000 young carers are between the ages of five and 15, raising important practical and ethical questions about the competency of the child as carer, and the age-appropriate nature of the caring tasks being undertaken.
- The total of 175,000 young carers identified in the 2001 UK Census is likely to be a substantial underestimate.
- Over one third of young carers provide care for someone with a serious mental health problem who is their parent or holds a parental role.
- Mothers are more likely to suffer mental health problems than fathers, and care for mothers is most often given by a female child.
- The unpredictable nature of some mental health problems can create difficulties for young carers whose behaviours are not always correctly attributed.
- The high level of stigma attached to mental health problems may lead young carers to exclude themselves from social involvement.
- The needs of young carers could often be better met by validating their input, concerns and skills.
- The education system can play a major role by recognising the impact of the caring role on children and young people’s experience of education, and making appropriate onward referrals.