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Life as a young carer: "I would not have identified as such at the time."

A former young carer shares their story with us about how they became a carer, despite at the time not considering themselves that, and what life was like.

I first became an unpaid carer at 17, though I certainly would not have identified as such at the time. Back then I was in the height of my A-levels with an avid social life, mixed in with part time work and sport. I have always been someone to whom people open up to, a trait I undoubtedly inherited from my mum. 

This became reality for someone in my year. I knew them, we were friends but by no means close. One day I had a message; they were struggling with their mental health. No one else was to know, they just needed someone else to talk to outside their normal friendship group. I obliged as anyone would and became a key part of their support network.

Little did I know that this would escalate from support network, to confidant, to eventually unpaid carer.

This transition was fairly quick, yet happened without me realising. All of a sudden, I was up every night beyond 3am, responding to messages and supporting someone who was clearly in a recurring mental health crisis. This escalated to where they could no longer attend school, so I would travel to their house (some 40mins drive from my own) and tutor them for the A Level classes they were missing. At the time, all of this in my head at least, was in my role as a friend. I certainly would not have given the time to consider myself a ‘carer’.

Their mental health continued to deteriorate, culminating in attempts on their own life and a resulting sectioning under the Mental Health Act. This cycle continued for around 12 months, all the time remaining my secret. I would leave school and drive in circles so friends wouldn’t see where I was going (if going to tutor) and due their spiralling anxiety, began to isolate myself from classmates whom they believed were ‘out to get them’. A regular night sleep escaped me for most of my school year. I would regularly wake for school, open my phone and see I had had whole serious conversations of which I had no recollection, an indication perhaps of my fatigue.

As a 17/18 year old, I had never considered the term carer, nor had I considered the impact of this role on my own wellbeing. To this day I state that I have no direct experience of mental ill-health. However, I spent a year of my young adult life under immense pressure, with limited sleep and with the weight of someone’s life on my shoulders, so perhaps this statement is not entirely true.

The story of my friend ends positively. They passed their A Levels, believe it or not beating me in an exam I had tutored them for (how does that work!), and went on to complete university. They later received a bipolar diagnosis, and with it the suitable medication, transforming their relationship with their mental health.

But where does that leave me? I finished university and went on, ironically, to work for an unpaid carer charity, still oblivious to my own experience. I was even asked at interview and denied having personal experience as a carer. I look back now at that time, with the hindsight of firstly working for a carer charity and now a mental health charity, with pride. 

I know I helped someone; I know I made a difference. However, I also carry my own scars. I still have the occasional nightmare about that person walking into oncoming traffic whilst on the phone to me. I still shudder at the ‘ping’ of a text on an iPhone as I subconsciously affiliate it to a late-night crisis message.

If I could appear alongside the 17-year-old version of myself, I would provide the following words of wisdom:

My story is not uncommon, and I write anonymously as I seek to raise awareness of others in this situation rather than attributing any kind of praise to myself. Young people are experiencing what my friend did every day. Almost every one of them has someone like me; a friend or perhaps family member doing what they can to help. 

There are millions of unpaid carers doing incredible things all over the UK. If you are an unpaid carer reading this, I hope you found it insightful. Now please take a moment and reflect on the amazing things you do, give yourself a pat on the back and know that, for what it is worth, you have my admiration and respect.

If you feel you need support for your mental health, take a look at our services.

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