Last week was National Carers Week, an annual campaign to raise awareness of the great work of carers that also highlights the very real challenges these people face on a daily basis.
Most of us know what it's like to look after a loved one who's ill with the flu, broken a limb or is struck off by the stomach bug. After all, everyone gets sick at some point. Yet for a large group of people, caring for a loved one long term is a daily reality, a full time job that can take over their entire life.
There are 6.5 million carers in the UK; these are people like you and me who care for a friend or family member with a disability, mental health problem, long term illness or substance abuse issue. While looking after someone with any type of long term health issue is challenging, it's even more challenging for young carers whose caring responsibilities leave little or no time for their childhood. The 2001 census identified 175,000 children under the age of 18 who care for one or several family members. 13,000 of those are caring for more than 50 hours a week.
At Barnardo's we run 20 young carer services across the UK to provide support for young carers and their families. Our services help to reduce the amount of caring undertaken by the child and the emotional burden placed on them. In the last year alone we've supported 3,500 young carers through our services.
Children that care for a loved one are a hidden group and it's fair to assume that the number of young carers across the UK is higher than what we actually think. Many young carers don't recognise themselves as such and to make matters worse they are often not recognised by members of their community - this includes professionals such as GPs and teachers - which frequently leaves these children without help or support.
However, recently there have been some positive changes with the government passing new legislation to better support young carers, through the Children and Families Act 2014 and the Care Act 2014.
Under the new legislation all young carers are now entitled to a 'young carer's needs assessment' from their local authority, which has to identify the impact any caring roles might have on them. This assessment must spot whether it is appropriate for the young carer to perform these roles - and will include taking into account the feelings of the young carer about the caring role they play. It will also look at education, training and leisure opportunities as well as views these children have about their future. The local authority then must consider what support a member of the young carer's family needs.
These two pieces of legislation are a positive step in the right direction, yet it still remains to be seen how local authorities can provide better support to adults in need of care so that the caring responsibilities on the young person can be reduced.
To make sure that the new legislation has the desired impact, it's vital that measures are put in place so that young carers who need support receive it before their caring role causes long term damage to their physical health, social and emotional wellbeing, their education, and future adult life.
It is therefore essential that local authorities adopt a 'whole-family approach' at all times. They must take into account not only the young carers needs but the needs of other family members, as well as the person with the caring needs. A more holistic approach can then be taken to provide appropriate and relevant support to the whole family.
It's been just over two months since legislation came into force so it is still in the early stages and we don't know what the impact will be. We still have a long way to go before every young carer is given the right support for them to continue to succeed and strive in education and within their social environment, without being emotionally and physically laden by their caring role. Until then, Barnardo's will monitor how local authorities are putting the new measures into place and what impact this will have in reality on young carers.