Young carers have been cast
aside for far too long

This autumn Lung Theatre is putting young carers and their stories centre stage to amplify their voices and campaign for them to get the support they need. Writer and director Matt Woodhead writes

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In 2016, a group of teenagers were invited to the Lowry in Salford and asked if they would like to make a verbatim play about their lives as young carers. According to Carers Trust, there are an estimated 800,000 young carers in the UK.

A young carer is someone aged 18 or under who cares for someone with a disability, mental illness or addiction. The majority of young carers in this country are hidden. This means they are caring behind closed doors, unknown to anyone outside their own home.

The Lowry, the theatre company Lung and Gaddum (which supports young carers in Salford) wanted to carve out a space and give these young people the chance to tell their own story in their own words.

A group of incredibly brave teenagers came forward, took up the challenge and said yes. Every month for two years I interviewed them in a classroom at the Lowry. Together we made Who Cares. This play is adapted from over 200 hours of those interviews. The young carers and their families were involved in every aspect of the creative process. They cast the actors who performed in the show, their favourite tunes were in the show, they gave feedback on drafts of the script – you name it, they did it.

Jade has always cared for her brother who is deaf, but never expected to look after her dad as well

Their stories are stark and sometimes difficult to hear. When Nicole was four years old, her mum had a stroke outside the school gates. Every morning she helps her get washed, put on clothes and eat breakfast.

Jade has always cared for her brother, who is deaf, but never expected to look after her dad as well. Now she juggles two lots of appointments, two lots of prescriptions and two lots of assessment forms.

Connor cares for his mum who lives with bipolar and depression. At school these young people are just like everybody else. But when they get home, things are very different.

The play premiered at the Lowry before touring to youth zones, schools, theatres and young carers services across the country. We are currently back on the road, visiting theatres across the UK and engaging with a whopping 4,500 teenagers. In all of the venues we have visited so far, the real words of Nicole have packed a punch with our school audiences: “Since I started high school my behaviour’s gone downhill. I’m on my 13th social worker but no one’s actually asked me what’s wrong.”

So far, some 10,000 teenagers have seen the show and 200 unidentified young carers were found and signposted to support. In the average classroom there are two young carers. On this tour we are determined to find them.

Across the UK we are proud to be working with doctors, councillors and health professionals. Every time they see the play, the words of Jade ring in their ears: “Why am I not allowed to be involved in my dad’s care plan? I’m the one picking up the prescriptions, I’m the one managing the appointments, I’m the one who cares for him but no one will listen. Doctors refuse to recognise me as a carer because I am under 18.” At the end of each performance we’ve been amazed at the local professionals who are pledging to take action in their GP or pharmacy to help identify more hidden young carers.

The play has been performed at the House of Lords. It was humbling and moving for me to see these young carers from Salford standing in a room on the banks of the River Thames advocating not only for themselves but for the rights of young carers everywhere. That performance is what keeps us telling this story. Watching those young people, I felt the ground start to shift. People in power started to listen. But now we must act. Locally good work is happening but nationally we need radical change.

This autumn we are asking schools, professionals and anyone who wants to support young carers to come and be a part of this change. We are asking everyone to come and listen to the stories of these young carers. Their voices are hard to ignore.

A society is judged by how much it looks after its most in need, especially in difficult times. As we emerge into this post-pandemic world, the call for us to rally around young carers has never been more urgent. When we emerge from this world and into a new normal, we need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in. We need to be doing much more for our young carers.

To find out where Who Cares is visiting near you, please visit Follow: @Lungtheatre @GaddumCentre @The_Lowry. For support or information for young carers visit the Carers Trust or call 0300 772 9600

Main image by The Other Richard

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