Mental Health Awareness Week — Looking after Carers
As some people who are close to me know, I’ve had bouts of mental ill health on-and-off for the past decade. It started with frequent periods of low mood in my teens and then at the start of my 20s I was blessed with panic attacks.
Fortunately, due to a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, spiritual acceptance and connectedness to others, I’m now largely able to look after my emotional wellbeing. But because of my experience with the trauma of depression & the blood-pumpingness of anxiety, mental health and emotional wellbeing is an issue extremely close to my heart (….and head, pun intended).
So much so, in fact, that I joined Year Here’s social innovation programme back in February 2019 with an unshakeable desire to setup a social enterprise that would help people manage their mental fitness.
During my first ‘placement’ phase of Year Here I was immersed in a school in South London. I quickly saw how the state of a student’s mental health under-pinned every interaction they had. From their engagement with their studies or the over-generalised but still existent instances of being involved in crime, to their ability to manage their physical health.
Of course, I also saw how the economic inequalities these students suffered translated to what they suffered mentally & emotionally. These students were more stressed, anxious and depressed than I was at their age because I was economically and environmentally protected and they are not. They look after family members who need additional support, they try to avoid dangerous areas in their neighbourhood and they have do-or-die stakes of not succeeding at school, because a lot of them had families who had given-up everything to give them a better life and the students themselves felt they needed to do better for them.
Like many other teachers — or any frontline workers (as we are seeing with the elevated focus on the mental health of frontline workers during COVID-19) — I was going through my own mental health issues during my time at the school. The responsibility required of authority figures, the early starts and the trauma I absorbed from the student’s chaotic and, well, traumatic lives, began to take its toll.
Aside from managing this as best I could (I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a full-time teacher or other key-worker during a pandemic), I was also continuing to focus my energy on how I could design mental fitness programmes for vulnerable people and start my own social enterprise.
After July I moved into Year Here’s second phase — the consulting period. Here, I joined another 4 members of Year Here’s 2019 cohort (including my 2 co-founders of our business Curo) that were equally passionate about health & wellbeing, as we consulted the NHS on how they could better support individuals with a learning disability and/or autism.
We spent most of our time engaging with these individuals to understand their needs and help the NHS shape the support they provide in this area. We discovered their desire to date, their ambition for accessible spaces and their striving for self-actualisation. Unsurprisingly, we were reminded of their obvious humanity.
What was surprising however, was the unforeseen interactions we had with the Mums, Dads, siblings and friends who cared for these individuals.
After asking how those who had learning disabilities and/or autism were, we would inevitably turn to these (unpaid) carers and ask them how they were. Frequently we would hear the cliche response of “I’m fine”, which each and every one of us knows masks a deeper, more emotional truth. On other, just as frequent occasions, we would hear more jarring responses — “I’m really struggling” from Joanne, “It feels like a constant battle” from Darren or “To be honest, I’m suicidal…”, from Sharm.
Around about this time I was becoming more aware that my mission to help people manage their mental fitness was too broad.
What does a mental health solution look like for Wesley the 17 year old man from a black-Caribbean, working class background in Brixton? A person who is coming-of-age in the face of pressures to prove himself as a man, support his family and repress feelings of neglect he received from his emotionally unavailable and hard-working family, friends and community? And how does this compare to Ranjeet the 33 year old woman who has autism who is unable to communicate pain, nor leave her house without a carer and struggles to build emotional bonds with others?
Common sense told me to discover who needed support the most. Surely when trying to solve a problem you would try and solve it for those who really needed it, right? Whilst Year Here were also teaching me that you should solve issues for those who were underserved.
It wasn’t hard for me to ask Google a simple question: “Who suffers from mental health the most?”. MentalHealth.org.uk’s statistics showed that among these groups were Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, people who are homeless, LGBTQ+ people, people who had been domestically abused and… carers.
According to the NHS, a carer is anyone who looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without their support.
Although I was not previously aware of what a carer is, it now seemed as if the pieces of my path were aligning.
I had become able to understand & frame the stress my Mum who was looking after my grandma who has dementia felt when my grandma got ill. I could similarly frame the anxiety of students at school who studied from 8:30am–6pm and looked after their siblings who needed additional support every other second, as well as the depression that parents of individuals with a learning disability and/or autism faced when they saw their beloved children deteriorate.
Sadly, these experiences that I was able to relate to due to their serendipitous overlap with my personal life, are not isolated. In fact, reports show that 8 in 10 carers feel isolated (and are 7 times more likely to say they are always lonely compared to non-carers), carers are twice as likely to feel anxious as non-carers and 71% of carers have poor mental health.
This Mental Health Awareness Week allows me to reflect on my experiences with mental ill health and my consequential drive to support others with their mental ill health. This Week reinforces the need to support vulnerable groups of people who unevenly suffer from mental ill health and to highlight that carers are one of these groups at the best of times, let alone when they are bombarded with COVID19. Undoubtedly we are all suffering currently, but Mental Health Awareness Week sitting amidst one of the worst pandemics we have ever faced reminds me of how unfairly and unequally it affects those who care for loved ones more than the rest of us.
Mental Health Awareness Week also allows me to take stock of how proud I am to be working on a solution at Curo where carers are able to get advice from our team of specialists and experts on all of their caring related questions (including doctors, financial & legal advisors and mental health practitioners), which in turn eases their caring burden and allows them to manage their wellbeing and the wellbeing of the person they care for.
If you are inspired by this piece and want to learn more, or are a carer who would like further support, please use our free service here, or contact us on email@example.com.