My mum had significant mental-health challenges; so, from the age of five or six, I remember feeling the weight of that. We were a single-parent household for several years, and I lived in fear a lot of the time, not knowing what my mum would do.
I was very shy, couldn’t speak in front of people, and school was particularly difficult. It was a happy childhood in many ways, but there was a lot of fear and stress.
Now, I’m a single mum of two boys aged 17 and 19, who, unfortunately, have their own mental-health struggles. Balancing their needs alongside work and other commitments has been challenging, but my childhood helped me understand what my boys are going through, and that’s given me a passion for helping them.
When I grew up, we didn’t have a term for “young carer”; so I didn’t realise how much of an impact this had on me, and couldn’t process my frustration and anger. I had a light-bulb moment when I started working at Spurgeons children’s charity and realised: that’s what I went through. Many young carers still don’t think their situation is unusual. They don’t know support is there for them and they can talk to somebody.
We support campaigns and legislation that would lead to greater understanding or care for young carers, and we’re part of the Young Carers Alliance, which campaigns to make positive improvements on a national level.
My nan was really important to me. She was my safe person, safe place. When my mum wasn’t well, I’d go to my nan’s. As I got older, friends who knew about my childhood and what I went through became really important, and they’ll always be there in difficult times.
There was no definition of a young carer until about 20 years ago. It wasn’t something that was acknowledged. But now the criterion is you’re caring for, or helping to care for, a parent or sibling with a disability, illness, mental-health condition, or because of substance misuse. It isn’t just “helping out”, which was and still is expected in a lot of families.
Young caring is a role reversal: young people doing what their parents would typically be doing — cooking and cleaning, looking after siblings, giving medication. Recently, more young people are caring for a parent with a mental-health condition or substance misuse, which bears a lot of emotional impact. Unlike adults, they can’t apply for any financial benefits.
We believe there are a million young carers in the UK, but the census that’ll be released soon may give a better idea. There are about 600 in Wolverhampton, some of whom are five or six years old, and most of them are very positive. They want to do what they do and don’t always need or want support — everyone’s different — but legislation says they have a right to an assessment of need. If a parent needs bathing, showering, or help using the toilet, we try to get them an adult care package to take that inappropriate burden away.
We had an eight-year-old boy looking after his mum, who was in a wheelchair. They lived on pasta and sauce every day of their life, because she said it was easy for him to make that; but managing a big pan of boiling water isn’t necessarily safe for an eight-year-old.
Children can still be young carers, even if parents are in the house. We must also recognise the emotional impact caused by a parent’s terminal illness, or missing out on one-to-one parent time or family days. Somebody caring for a parent may have a lot of other support around them; so their well-being might be better than that of somebody caring for a sibling, when a lot of their parents’ time and attention is on that sibling. We took a young person of 17 to the sea, which he’d never seen before, and he was so amazed and happy. He just sat and gazed at it for three hours.
We can give sibling carers time for themselves, and activities that don’t revolve around the needs of someone else. We also provide one-to-one support, helping them understand their caring role and work through their emotions; and we offer respite groups, giving them the chance to do lots of fun things that they may not have the chance to do with their families.
We also support young carers who face bullying: 68 per cent will face some form of bullying at school, usually because they are different, or because of poverty, isolation, and hygiene issues. We can advocate for them in school so they get extra time for things like homework, and we can provide one-to-one support where a young person isn’t in school.
Still, an awful lot of them miss big chunks of their education. We try hard to help parents get to appointments, or care for them if they’re sick, to avoid that. We really encourage them to stay in education or take up an apprenticeship, and we had five go to university last year, which was brilliant.
One of our boys cared for his mum and grandparents, and it defined him. When his grandparents died, there was a huge hole in his life, and he needed significant support to overcome this. Especially at 8 p.m., his usual time to go and check they were OK for the night, the grief and guilt would overwhelm him. He’s now completely turned his life around and is doing a nursing degree. He’s still caring for his mum, but he’s embraced life and is loving it.
Lots of us end up in caring professions. Young carers are a special group of young people. They’ve always had to think about somebody above themselves, and that stays with them. You can always tell these groups on residential holidays. They’re unique.
A large percentage of our families go to church, perhaps because we have a Christian ethos. But I don’t know if their church communities know their situation. The more we raise awareness, the more support can be offered.
My first experience of God was going to church as a young child with my nan in my church dress. It was a black-and-white-check dress with a little cherry brooch, and I absolutely loved it. I associated my early experience of God with my church dress.
I went to a faith-based school; so faith was always there. I was heavily influenced by my grandmothers. One was very heavily involved in the church’s life. I never saw the other attend church on a Sunday, but she prayed every day, wherever she was.
Putting my music on and getting out for a walk have been really good for my mental health. This year, I’ve tried to get out for an hour every day. I also love reading. One of my favourite things is sitting by the sea and listening to the waves.
My sons and being with friends make me so happy. Friends are so important.
I want to travel, because I’ve never had the chance, though my real dream is to set up my own centre to work individually with more young carers and families on their specific needs.
I see families struggling daily with the cost-of-living increase, which makes me angry. It’s frustrating not to be able to help in the way we’d like to. Last week, one little boy was upset because his family had to turn their electricity off. That’s just a little taste of what’s to come.
It can be hard to have hope in these times, but the people in my team are passionate and motivated to serve the families and children they work with, and that makes me hope we can make a difference.
I pray for my boys to work through their difficulties and have happy and healthy futures. That’s always my focus.
If I could be locked in a church with anyone, I’d love a couple more hours with my nan, who died when I was 21. I think about her every day, and wish she could have been here to meet my children.
Angie Jones was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.