Politics

Opinion: Greater awareness is needed of ‘young carers’


It can feel inappropriate to discuss how we’re affected by someone else’s health, but young carers need to be able to talk about our experiences.

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If someone says the word “caregiver,” what comes to mind?

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Many people would think of a paid nurse, or a parent caring for their child with a disability. Few people would think of a young teen whose sibling has a mental illness, a young professional who helps a friend with mobility issues, or a child who translates for their parent at the bank. The youth in those examples could be young carers, people under the age of 30 who provide unpaid care to or are affected by a loved one with a mental illness, disability, age-related condition or other issues.

The truth is that caring is very common, even among young people, and is known to start as young as six years old. Statistics Canada revealed that in 2012, 1.25 million youth were young carers. This has an impact on young carers’ physical, emotional and mental well-being and their ability to build toward their future. Despite representing over one-quarter of youth ages 15-25, young carers have hardly received any attention as an at-risk population.

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To address this, AMI-Quebec started a Young Family and Friends peer support group. Since September, young carers have logged into the monthly meeting and, typically, begun by saying that someone suggested they should come, but that they aren’t sure they’re a “young carer.” As the new Young Carers Project co-ordinator, this really struck me, but as a young carer myself, I understood what they meant. It can feel inappropriate to discuss how someone else’s health affects you.

I have frequently said things like “she does the same for me” and “it’s really not that much work” when I mention how I support my partner. For the most part, I avoid talking about it. As young people, we’ve grown up during the shift toward the destigmatization of mental-health issues, but it can still feel taboo to talk about it when you’re seemingly “blaming” someone else for their struggles. Between the stigma that does still exist and this fear of shaming your loved one, a lot of people in our support group choose not to publicly discuss their caring role, saying that it’s more of a “family secret” or “not my story to tell.”

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To stave off the negative impacts on their own health, social life, education and career, young carers need to be able to talk about our experiences without fear of judgment, or feeling like they’ve betrayed the person they care for. If “young carer” was a commonly used term, it could help these young people articulate their struggles and access services.

When I was a student, I lied whenever my role as a carer interfered with my studies. I once said I had the flu when I was really at my girlfriend’s cancer checkup for moral support. If there were greater awareness of young carers, and familiarity with the term, I could have felt more comfortable being honest with my professors. In our support group, we often talk about wishing we could tell our friends why we cancel plans so often. A simple recognition would do much to shift how the burden of care sits on these young people’s shoulders.

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To get there, we need wide public awareness, so that young carers can recognize themselves, and the people around them can empathize and support them. Along the way, many people will find out that they are or were carers in their youth. Popularizing this term is a step that has to happen before we can tackle the issue in earnest.

It’s time to talk about the ways we care for one another, and to make it clear that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I am a young carer, and if you are as well, I hope that you can embrace it.

For more information about young carers and to access support, visit AMI-Quebec at amiquebec.org/youngcarers

Oliver Fitzpatrick is Young Carers Project co-ordinator with AMI-Québec.

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