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New study illustrates the lives of young carers

A new study by Loughborough University has highlighted what caring for a parent with serious mental health problems is like through the eyes of children and young people themselves.

Researchers in the University’s Young Carers Research Group (YCRG) used photographic methods to reveal new insight into the lives of children and young people who live with, and help to provide care for, their mentally ill parents.

In the research study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, children and young people – young carers – were given cameras so that they could show what it is like to live with, and care for, a parent with serious mental illness.

Dr Jo Aldridge, director of the YCRG, said: “This study enabled children and young people who are carers to give us direct visual insight into their lives and uncovered aspects of young caring previous studies haven’t been able to identify.

“It was a participative study which allowed the children themselves to become co-researchers in the research process by creating visual diaries of their lives.”

Sixteen children and young people took part in the study and created their own photo diaries. Their parents had a range of mental health problems, including depression, schizophrenia and personality disorder, sometimes combined with physical health problems.

As well as revealing what sort of domestic tasks young carers undertake, such as washing up, cleaning, caring for siblings and parents and administering medication, the study also revealed the coping strategies that children use in order to cope with their caring responsibilities.

“Other studies have revealed what these children do because of what they have told us through interviews,” explains Dr Aldridge, “but this study gave us more detailed personal insight from children’s visual perspectives. So it showed us the ways in which they coped with their caring lives and how they negotiate caring with school life and friendships, for example.

“What was also important was that these children and young people enjoyed taking active part in the research process and being in charge of their own data collection. This approach is much more in line with recent government thinking and policy on children’s inclusion, participation and in consulting with them. The study shows that children are competent social agents, not just as carers but as children with stories to tell about their lives.”

Key messages to policy makers to emerge from the study are that children can and do cope with parental mental illness and caring and that they want recognition for this. But young carers also need information, particularly about mental illness, formal support services and recognition for the contributions they make as carers and, in this case, as co-researchers.

“It is true that these children’s lives are often difficult and painful and more constrained than their peers who do not have to care for an ill parent,” explains Dr Aldridge. “But the role of friends, close parent- child relationships, home based activities, faith and even family pets all need careful consideration when addressing these children’s needs and helping them to cope with parental illness. These children want the public and professionals to see what it is like to be a young carer and how they cope with their lives.”

Helen McCullam | alfa
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