Research suggests that young carers have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. With much of the country still under coronavirus restrictions, organisations supporting young carers in the Bournemouth area are moving online to try and keep them from becoming isolated…
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of our lives. But there are few other groups that have been affected as much as young carers. Children under 18 who take on the responsibility of looking after family members who require physical care. There are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK. And for many of them, the pandemic has heaped additional pressures on top of their already-demanding responsibilities.
A recent survey by the Carers Trust charity found that 56% of young carers believed their education has suffered as a result of coronavirus. Meanwhile, 40% said that their mental health had worsened — a situation that the charity described as a “ticking timebomb”.
These pressures come on top of the everyday issues many young carers already face. A 2017 government report found that young carers are more likely to be bullied, and have difficulty making friends.
“Even in a good year, young carers struggle for all sorts of reasons,” said Steve Robinson, Operations Manager at Honeypot Children’s Charity. He claimed that lockdowns have “put a magnifying glass” on the issues most carers already struggle with. As a result, “The level of anxiety and stress on those families is heightened, even relative to the general population”.
THE IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC
Honeypot Children’s Charity has supported young carers aged 5-12 for nearly 25 years. Before the pandemic, they provided residential breaks for young carers from across the South at a house in the New Forest. The charity, which supports 91 children in the Bournemouth area, also offered educational assistance and face-to-face outreach support. Over the past year, lockdowns and social distancing restrictions forced them to move much of their operation online. Staff members hosted online workshops and afterschool programs. And they saw first-hand the effect the pandemic has had on young carers and their families.
“When schools opened up, a lot of families struggled with determining the right thing to do,” Steve explained. “Many decided not to send their children back to school… because they feared putting their families at risk”.
Jenny Ray, Operations Director at Honeypot and a former headteacher, described the children as “stuck in the middle of this”.
“Many of our children are aware of the risks of coronavirus on their loved ones. You can tell there is a level of angst around them in terms of wanting to do the right thing”.
For many young carers, this uncertainty has had a real impact on their access to education. It has exacerbated a problem that existed even before the pandemic, with young carers missing 48 days of school a year on average because of their role.
ENGAGING WITH YOUNG CARERS OVER LOCKDOWN
With isolation levels increasing, the online programs run by organisations such as Honeypot have been crucial in giving children some respite from their caring responsibilities.
“When we first started doing workshops over the summer, it was the first time they’d seen anyone outside of their own house in months,” said Jenny.
The charity has since launched a new website with a children’s activity area. They’ve also offered online drama, music and art workshops over the summer holidays and October half-term.
As well as giving young carers a break, these workshops have allowed them to form friendships they would not otherwise have made.
“You have children mixing from London, Poole, Birmingham and Powys,” Jenny explained. “We’ve seen children strike up friendships outside of the workshop, within lockdown limits and social distancing. It’s a positive from COVID, if we can talk that way”.
For Honeypot, the pandemic has also presented an opportunity for the charity to re-evaluate its approach. “It’s stopped us doing what we traditionally have done,” said Steve. “But I feel very positive about how we’ve responded to that. Traditionally, we mostly did residential breaks. And while we support children throughout their childhood, the reality of that was that we were only available to children infrequently”.
Going digital over lockdown has led to the charity being in more regular contact with young carers and their families. For Steve, this has allowed them to develop “a range of services that are broader than they’ve ever been”.
Honeypot hope to begin offering respite breaks again as soon as possible. However, when they do, Steve commented that, “We’ll definitely maintain a lot of the things we’ve developed over the last nine months”.
SUPPORTING YOUNG CARERS IN FUTURE
The pandemic has put additional strain on many of the support networks available for young carers. Despite rising demand, government funding for children’s services has fallen by a third over the last decade.
“A lot of young carer organisations have struggled for funding and resources,” Steve admitted. “Ultimately, they have lost staff and capability”.
After a tough year, Honeypot are currently taking part in the Big Give Christmas Challenge, and aim to raise £100,000 between 1st and 8th December.
They are also attempting to raise awareness about the issues facing young carers. Especially in schools, where they often do not get the necessary support.
“We need to educate the educators,” said Jenny. “So many children are unknown young carers because people don’t know what they’re looking for”.
In the meantime, however, they intend to use their digital platforms to continue providing young carers with a respite. Steve believes that impact of these platforms has been incredibly positive. “We’ve had kids on the digital workshops who’ve said ‘this is the best thing that has happened to me in lockdown’.”
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