Imagine falling asleep at school because you are so exhausted from providing overnight care, every night, to a parent.

Or having the potential to excel at school but your home caring role is so all-consuming that you can’t see a future beyond collecting welfare payments? Or missing school regularly to provide practical and emotional support to your mentally ill mum?

This is the reality for many young people in our community who provide a caring role for parents and family members. Known as young carers, these are children and young people up to 25 years who help care for someone who has an illness, disability, mental health issue, an alcohol or drug problem, or who is frail/aged. These carers, who can be as young as 8, are often hidden behind closed doors, can be isolated and find it difficult to connect to support and services. UnitingCare Wesley Bowden (UCWB) is hoping to change their story.

UnitingCare Wesley Bowden is one of the organisations to receive one of our latest Fay Fuller Foundation Discovery Grants. These grants are all about discovery and asking questions to uncover evidence that will lead to better health and social outcomes for South Australians.

UCWB’s project will explore how young carers can be identified and supported so they can realise a life beyond their caring role. While caring can be a positive experience, it can lead to social isolation and the risk of mental health issues from low self-esteem and unresolved feelings of fear, worry, sadness, anger, resentment and guilt. Young carers are also less likely to complete year 12 or gain employment than non-carers and are more likely to become welfare dependent.

UnitingCare Wesley Bowden’s Manager, Research and Development Melissa Monkhouse said it was important to reverse these trends and support young carers to continue with their schooling while also carrying out their caring role.

We need to find a way to connect young carers with the resources that they need, even small tweaks in support systems could make a big difference to this group of carers.

Melissa Monkhouse

For instance, it was unlikely that this group of young people would self-identify as carers and even type the words ‘carer’ into an online search bar, possibly favouring terms like ‘When I look after mum’.

Melissa said other support options such as calling a 1800 number could be very confronting for children who may not have yet developed the skills to advocate for themselves.

Helping schools to recognise young carers was also important as the most common trait would be falling asleep in class, which could easily be mistaken for being disengaged with learning in general.