Stage managed

Like any other carer, Finlay Myers does a lot of cooking, helps his mum put her shoes on, does the bins. But Finlay’s only 12 – and he gets lonely sometimes. And drama is one way he combats it

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For Finlay Myers, arriving at school the morning after a big social event such as a party has often made him feel lonelier than ever. Unlike most of his school friends, Finlay’s role as a registered carer for his mum means he often has to turn down invitations, and on the occasions when he is able to go out he admits his mum Caroline is never far from his thoughts.

“What if she can’t do something while I’m out enjoying myself? She could be in pain.”

“I have felt lonely so much,” admits the 12 year old from Swinton. “[There have been times when] I could see all my friends doing things, and I’d go to school the next day and everyone would be saying: ‘Oh yeah, we went to such a place, we had such a good time. What did you do, Finlay?’ And I’d be saying: ‘Oh, I made spag bol and sat in my room alone for most of the night.’”

Finlay’s mum has suffered from a broken hip since she was 12 years old. Caroline also has Russell Silver syndrome, a congenital condition characterised by stunted growth. Two years ago she underwent surgery for a hip replacement, but her disability and 4ft 2in stature means Finlay, an only child whose father died when he was two, is often needed to help her with everyday household tasks.

“I do a lot of cooking,” says the year eight pupil. “I like to cook pasties, pasta. I did chilli the other night. I also help my mum put her shoes on. She had these sandals when we went on holiday – those bloody sandals! I help put her socks on, help her get things out of the car and into the house. I do the bins. I do things that nobody really thinks about.

“Before the operation I didn’t go out at all. School and walking my dog and going to my grandma’s were the only things that would get me out of the house, because it’s hard to explain but it’s always in the back of your head. What if my mum has an accident while I’m not there? What if she can’t do something while I’m out enjoying myself? She could be in pain.

“There was a massive big party that all my friends went to and they invited me, but that night my mum had an accident and she was in hospital, and I had to stay with her and help her.”

Finlay’s openness about how lonely he has felt is brave for a 12 year old, but he is not alone. Research by the Co-op Foundation recently found young people feel lonely more than any other age group, yet only 26 per cent feel comfortable talking about loneliness.

The findings have encouraged the organisation to launch a new campaign titled We Are Lonely, But Not Alone, in a bid to raise awareness of youth loneliness and encourage young people to open up to others who may be in a similar situation.

“The research showed young people said they felt lonely more often than older age groups, and I think a lot of people found it surprising,” says Jim Cooke, head of the Co-op Foundation. “It was something young people themselves weren’t really talking about. We also saw youth organisations weren’t even explicitly thinking about this topic of loneliness.”

The Co-op Foundation has since given £6.5 million to UK organisations working with young people.

“Through all of that work the one thing we came to understand was that if we were ever going to make a difference on this we needed to deal with this perception that there is a stigma about loneliness for a lot of people, but for young people in particular,” says Cooke.

“It’s something where, if they feel lonely, even though the research says this is a commonplace experience and that the vast majority of young people feel lonely sometimes and many of them feel lonely often, for the individual young person it feels like it’s just them – it feels like something they’ve done wrong, or it’s something that’s just happened to them. I think that because of that they don’t approach others for help, whether it’s just talking to their friends or whether it’s reaching out to a youth worker.

“We wanted to do something that would overcome that kind of hurdle of young people recognising that this is not just them. They don’t just have to deal with it on their own or bottle it up.

“There is actually a whole community around them – their peers who are going through similar things – and they can help each other. If loneliness becomes really long term and intense this is where you need to be engaging with professionals and services to help address the underlying reasons.”

Finlay found a lifeline when his mum contacted the charity Gaddum on his behalf. Gaddum is an organisation based in Greater Manchester that offers therapy and a dedicated carers’ support service. Finlay now attends a weekly session with other young carers, and he has performed in two plays with the charity’s drama group.

Finlay says drama has given him an outlet to help him express his feelings. Attending the weekly sessions has given him a “safety net”, as he knows even if he doesn’t get chance to socialise with friends outside school, he always has the Gaddum Centre to look forward to.

“I’m not a very good writer and I’m not good at art, but my thing is drama,” says Finlay. “On stage you can be someone else and you can show emotion. You don’t have to have a big monologue or a big speech. You can just say a few lines and that will say everything you need to say.

“Being on stage is an escape every week – it’s one night where you can just forget about everything.”

The role the arts can have in encouraging isolated young people to connect is something that’s not lost on Gaddum. Earlier this year the charity partnered with Manchester Metropolitan University to launch a mood music project, an initiative that utilises emotion-sensing software to interpret moods into sounds. The charity also runs a poetry group and a film group, and earlier this year put on a carers fest, with live musical performances and a carers makers market.

“We come across loneliness a lot,” says Gaddum chief executive Lynne Stafford. “We have worked for a number of years with the Lowry theatre and they have a group who work with young carers.

“We also have the mood music project. That’s one way of getting young people to connect, because these days a lot of young people connect through social media and digitally rather than face to face.”

Finlay has found a true friend in his pet dog Max, a Maltese and Shih-Tzu cross. He has now joined a Whatsapp group with some friends, where they arrange to walk their dogs together after school and at weekends.

“Getting a dog was really helpful, because I felt like I had someone else,” he says.

Finlay says opening up about how lonely he has felt has helped him find the confidence to connect with other young people who have felt isolated, and he has a word of advice for young people who need to take the leap.

“I think we all need to get out of our comfort zone and maybe try and start a group chat with our friends and try and meet up over the weekend or even once every two weeks.”

If only

Above: fifteen-year-old Claire Muhlawako who says she’s lonely as an only child. Main image: Finlay Myers with friends at drama club

Youth loneliness doesn’t just affect young carers. Fifteen-year-old Claire Muhlawako Madzura found herself feeling isolated when she was home alone while her mum was out at work.

“I’m an only child, so when my mum is at work most of the time I’ll just be by myself. I guess it’s just always been me and her,” Claire says. “I’ve become accustomed to it and I’m quite independent, but there are times where I’m isolating myself without realising it because I’m so used to being by myself. I was suddenly not speaking to people and not doing activities with friends because I was just used to being on my own.”

Like Finlay, Claire is sharing her story as she wants to encourage other young people to reach out to each other.

“With being an only child I’ve had to tell myself, OK, this person has just popped into my mind, why don’t I text them? Why don’t I invite them to go somewhere?

“I think loneliness is quite hard to talk about. When you talk about mental health in general a lot of people automatically assume you’re going to talk about anxiety or depression, but loneliness isn’t talked about.

“First of all I think you need to have the courage to say it out loud. A lot of people who are feeling lonely are in denial. Even saying something out loud like ‘I’m lonely’ to yourself in a mirror tells yourself there is an issue and you can do something.”

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