I found my mum’s suicide note a week into my second semester of third year. While she was physically okay, we faced another lowest of lows. In the years I’ve known about my mum’s depression, it has affected every part of my life. I don’t say that to diminish what she goes through; I know how much it has taken from her. But it is also true that the families of people with severe, clinical mental health issues ride the waves alongside them. Sometimes knowing the illness is to blame means there is no room for your emotions.
The first time I heard of her attempting to take her own life was the day of my Higher English exam; I didn’t feel I could tell anyone, so I just got on with it. I dread Christmas Day each year when I wonder whether she can handle the emotional impact. When she spoke of wanting to foster children to “fill a void” I swallowed back my pain. On this occasion, I got the call that she was going into hospital, and my boyfriend and I moved into her house to help look after her, her house, and her dog. Meanwhile, I was working on my dissertation proposal, taking part in an internship, and navigating online classes. It was the first time I allowed myself to recognise that I’d been caring for her all this time.
In high school, a friend of mine who knew of the situation with my mum asked me if I was going to a meeting for young carers that day. I was confused. I didn’t have to help my mum get around or cook for her. She was ill, but not in a way that I could be considered a carer for her. In fact, at that point I felt like I did the opposite, exacerbating how bad she felt. Not long after I’d moved into her house and we began doing her washing, packing her things, cleaning her house and walking her dog, I got an email on Young Carer Action Day, which said I could email the advising team to get support. It explained that many young carers don’t realise they are carers. At this point, when I had begun helping in a practical way, I felt much more ready to accept that I was a young carer and needed support to stay on top of everything. I got in touch and received a reply to set up a meeting the next day.
During the meeting, they explained that a carer is anyone who provides emotional or practical support to a family member, friend or someone else who could not manage alone. It’s important to recognise that giving emotional support to help someone manage is also a form of caring. If I’d understood this when I was younger and reached out before, I would have felt less alone and been more able to manage. Realising this, I felt so sorry for my younger self, struggling in silence and feeling as if there was no room to say I needed help too. I felt glad I had taken this step now though, and I encourage anyone who provides support to someone around them, emotional or practical, to reach out to the Advising Team and see how they can help. In my case, I was able to get some extensions without having to explain the situation to each of my tutors, which really helped me to manage my workload. On days where you are emotionally drained or have lots of practical tasks to help someone with, it’s difficult to sit down and write a brilliant essay. Whilst they can’t make the pain of seeing a loved one battle an illness better, they can make the practical side of juggling your increased responsibilities more manageable.
They also have a private Student Carers’ Network Facebook group, where you can get in touch with people in a similar situation to yours, and they even host events like live comedy shows or online mixers where you can take time out and meet people who understand. It’s important to realise you’re not alone, and although I haven’t gotten involved in any events yet, it helped just seeing there are lots of people who can empathise.
It’s noble to put your feelings aside when caring for someone else, but they shouldn’t be completely ignored. You aren’t alone, and although we all wish for our loved ones to get better – for them and us – it’s important to know that there are ways you can lift the weight on your shoulders a little in the meantime.