Obligations threaten young carers’ futures

Young Australians providing care for family members with mental illnesses, alcohol and drug addictions are struggling to keep up with their studies, according to new research.

The Flinders University and UNSW study found the problem will remain without an adjustment to flexibility in schools and personalised intervention programs.

The results of a national survey, which included more than 5,000 children aged eight-14 identified hundreds of young carers. It compared their levels of school engagement with peers that don’t carry similar responsibilities on a daily basis.

Almost 500 young carers indicated they were looking after a family member with a disability or other serious health concern, of whom a majority had responsibilities for a family member with a mental illness or using alcohol or drugs.

The study was led by Senior Research Fellow in the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre Dr Myra Hamilton, and Flinders University College of Business, Government and Law Professor Gerry Redmond. It indicates that young carers are in desperate need of diverse forms of support to ensure their unpredictable responsibilities don’t prevent engagement at school, especially because no single experience is the same.

“Previous research has shown young carers can be over a year behind their classmates in literacy and numeracy, and they have responsibilities which can adversely affect their life chances, health and well-being, and relationships, so we need to understand why,” Professor Redmond said.

“Our results show tailored programs focusing on the needs of young carers are desperately needed to improve their school engagement, something directly related to future outcomes.”

Professor Redmond says that while the engagement of a young carer for a family member with a disability or illness isn’t particularly different to that of non-carers, it’s a more difficult situation for carers of a person with a mental illness, or those using alcohol or drugs.

Dr Hamilton says despite evidence showing poorer school outcomes for these young carers and the challenges they face, there is still a lack in programs designed to meet their specific family environment and educational needs.

“A personalised approach which includes the entire family and greater awareness and understanding of mental illness and drug or alcohol issues in schools, among teachers and students, could help make the school environment less ‘threatening’ for young carers,” she said.

The federal government deploys programs and resources to schools, which raise awareness around young carers needs among staff and students and support their continued education.

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