UK young carers under greater mental pressure from their duties than European counterparts, new study shows
By: Tom Walters
Last updated: Friday, 6 May 2022
Adolescent young carers in the UK have a higher proportion of physical and mental health problems, thoughts of self-harm, lower wellbeing, experience higher levels of bullying and feel a greater negative impact on their schooling than their peers in other European countries, a first-of-its-kind study led by the University of Sussex reveals.
More than half of UK young carers aged between 15 and 17 years-old surveyed (57.3%) in the EU Horizon 2020 ME-WE Project reported that their caring duties had led to mental health problems, a much higher proportion than adolescent young carers (AYCs) in any of the other five European countries surveyed. Just under one in three (29.6%) AYCs in the UK reported their caring duties led to physical health problems, second only to their counterparts in Switzerland.
The study found that UK AYCs are the most likely to report that their responsibilities had led them to consider self-harm (27.9%), twice the European average (14%). The survey also revealed that adolescent young carers in the UK were more than twice as likely to self-report that their caring duties were having a negative impact on their schooling or had caused them to be a victim of bullying as their European counterparts.
More than one in ten adolescent young carers in the UK reported they had considered harming others because of the pressures they felt from their caring responsibilities - with more than half of those saying they had considered harming their care recipient.
The survey found a greater negative impact on teenage carers in the UK despite the fact that the UK was the only nation in the survey classified as “advanced” in terms of young carers on account of its world-leading young carer research, awareness and policy responses with young carers’ legal rights and access to supportive services. UK participants in the study had the greatest proportion of AYCs who were receiving support or whose family were receiving support and the highest proportion of awareness of caring responsibilities at their school and amongst their friends.
Dr Feylyn Lewis, who conducted the research while a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and is now Program Manager at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, said:
“Our findings are sobering, especially as the data were collected pre-pandemic. The UK sample was found to have greater occurrences of bullying, poor school performance, and poorer mental health (depression, and anxiety, self-harm including suicidal ideations) compared to our other European partner countries. Clinicians should first be alarmed at the self-reported self-harming thoughts experienced by adolescent young carers in direct association to their caregiving role.
“Considering that our data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic and other research in the UK and across Europe has established that children and adolescents’ mental health is increasingly worsening over the course of the pandemic, we should all be deeply concerned for the implications in practice.
“Some of our results might be explained by our sampling strategy in the UK—which primarily focused on young carers projects and schools, in contrast to our European partners whose recruitment efforts were in schools and general youth organisations. The threshold to be referred to a young carers support service in the UK can be relatively high, so perhaps our UK sample includes the most severely distressed young people because they warranted support services. Indeed, the study showed that AYCs in the UK had the highest caring workload. On the other hand, other large-scale research with European non-caring adolescents has found that the UK has some of the highest rates of mental health problems compared to other European countries. If the general well-being of youth in the UK is relatively poor, it follows therefore that UK young carers would experience significant negative impacts. We also point to austerity measures and social services budget cuts as further possible explanations for worsening health impacts in the UK young carers sample.
The ground-breaking study is the first to create a cross-national profile of adolescents who provide unpaid care to their ill or disabled family members in six European countries (Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK) with more than 2,000 adolescent young carers participating in the online study.
The research found that adolescent young carers have a lower state of well-being than adolescents without caring responsibilities with Slovenian and UK AYCs reporting the lowest state of well-being. This is particularly the case for girls, the study found, and the gender gap was most prevalent in the UK and Sweden.
A consistent pattern was observed in the study results across all countries of female AYCs rating their own well-being significantly lower than their male counterparts. Female AYCs based in the UK had the lowest wellbeing score, followed by those in Slovenia. Results from the survey indicate that while male and female AYCs have similar positive experiences of caring, female AYCs report more negative effects than their male counterparts.
The survey also indicated that the more caring responsibilities an AYC has, the more negative effects of caring they perceive including greater school difficulties, bullying, and poor mental health.
Saul Becker, who carried out the research as Professor of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Sussex, said:
“For the first time, our research provides findings of a large sample of adolescent young carers in six European countries. The statistical profile of more than 2,000 AYCs provides a clear picture of the characteristics of these carers and the impact of caring on their (self-perceived) health, well-being and school life.
“The study is the first-ever cross-national survey of adolescent young caring, with analysis within and across six European countries and the first to use standardised validated tools to assess the positive and negative outcomes of young caring on a substantial sample. The key thing now is to move beyond the research to provide quality support to this invisible army of adolescents who provide care to their families and friends.