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Young carers have been cast aside far too long. This government must act

We are putting young carers and their stories centre stage to help them get the support they need, writes MATT WOODHEAD

“The council had a meeting to see whether I went through something called corporate neglect” – Nicole, a young carer from Who Cares broadcast on BBC Radio 4. 

In 2016, four teenagers were invited to The Lowry in Salford and asked if they would like to make a verbatim play about their lives as young carers. According to Carers Trust, there are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK.  

A young carer is someone aged 18 or under who cares for someone with a disability, mental illness or addiction.

Some 70 per cent of young carers in this country are hidden. This means they are caring behind closed doors, unknown to anyone outside their own home. 

The Lowry, the theatre company LUNG and Gaddum (who support young carers in Salford) wanted to carve out a space and give these young people the chance to tell their own story in their own words.

A group of incredibly brave teenagers came forward, took up the challenge and said Yes. 

Every month for two years I interviewed them in a classroom at The Lowry.

This play is adapted from over 100 hours of those interviews. The young carers and their families were involved in every aspect of the creative process.

They cast the actors who performed in the show, their favourite tunes were in the show, they gave feedback on drafts of the script: you name it they did it. 

The stories of the young carers in Who Cares are stark and sometimes difficult to hear.

When Nicole was four years old, her mum had a stroke outside the school gates.

Every morning she helps her get washed, put on clothes and eat breakfast. Jade has always cared for her brother who is deaf, but never expected to look after her dad as well.

Now she juggles two lots of appointments, two lots of prescriptions and two lots of assessment forms.

Connor cares for his mum who lives with bipolar and depression. At school these young people are just like everybody else. But when they get home, things are very different. 

The play premiered at The Lowry before touring to youth zones, schools, theatres and young carers services across the country.

In all of these venues, the real life words of Nicole packed a punch — “Since I started high school my behaviour’s gone downhill. I’m on my 13th social worker but no-one’s actually asked me what’s wrong?” 

Some 10,000 teenagers saw the show and 200 unidentified young carers were found and signposted to support. 

In every school, I was blown away by how proactive the teachers were in responding to our call to arms. Sometimes we had barely taken down the set before teachers were volunteering to be a young carer lead in their school or hatching plans to create a support group for teenagers like Nicole, Connor and Jade.

Something that I couldn’t help wondering, though, is why so many teachers didn’t know about young carers already.

In the average classroom there are two young carers. Why isn’t the Department for Education telling schools across Britain to “think young carer” and equipping every teacher in the country with the skills to support them properly? 

As the show moved from city to city, we met teachers, doctors, councillors and health professionals.

This time it was Jade and Connor’s words that hit home: “Why am I not allowed to be involved in my dad’s care plan?

“I’m the one picking up the prescriptions, I’m the one managing the appointments, I’m the one who cares for him but no-one will listen.

“Doctors refuse to recognise me as a carer because I am under 18.”

In the backrooms of theatres in Ellesmere Port and in green rooms in Doncaster, grown-ups again began to put their heads together.

At a local level these adults hustled. They made plans and swapped email addresses but the question still hung in the air — what is happening nationally?    

After the show did several laps around the country, we took our message to the House of Lords. It was humbling and moving for me to see these young carers from Salford standing in a room on the banks of the River Thames advocating not only for themselves, but for the rights of young carers everywhere.

A line that particularly hit home was “mum’s body was ruined by the stroke but the government said she was fit for work. It wasn’t even a trained medical professional who assessed her.” 

In the House of Lords that day, I felt the ground start to shift. People in power started to listen. But now we must act. Locally good work is happening but nationally we need radical change. 

Since our day in Parliament, we have launched The Who Cares Campaign.

From Salford, we are lobbying to improve services for young carers across Britain.

We have launched a focus group of teachers, lawyers, academics, health workers to prepare new legislation to present to MPs. Westminster hasn’t heard the last from us yet…

Earlier this month, Who Cares was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. To coincide with this, we have launched a Digi Fund.

One in three young carers are from low-income families and many don’t have access to technology like laptops and phones. These things are vital for young people accessing school work in the pandemic and to help them fulfil their caring role. We are hoping to raise £5,000.

A society is judged by how much it looks after its most in need, especially in difficult times.

In this third national lockdown, the call for us to rally around young carers has never been more urgent. When we emerge from this pandemic we also need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in. We need to be doing much more for our young carers. 

Matt Woodhead is the co-artistic director of LUNG. Who Cares was produced by The Lowry and LUNG in partnership with Gaddum. 

To donate to the Digi Fund or find out more, please visit  www.whocarescampaign.co.uk/digi-fund. For more information follow on Twitter:  @WhoCaresAction@The_Lowry@GaddumCentre and @LungTheatre.

To listen to Who Cares on Radio 4, visit https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000s191

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