As a school employee, Mariska felt heart-broken by the lack of support available when she had to start caring for her child. For Carers Week, she shares her experience of being a carer.
How it started: exam anxiety
My child developed anxiety issues at the start of the GCSE examination period. School was only focussed on examination results, and pressure on staff meant some of the early signs were missed.
As parents we thought the anxiety was mainly linked to examinations and supported as best we could, but pastoral care was zero, and things escalated quickly.
‘A heart-breaking time’
There was no knowledge of any of the support services that might have lessened the domino effect of a downward spiral into depression. A GP prescribed a variety of meds to our child to get them through the examination period. At that stage we had to choose which parent was to leave their job, and mine was the lesser paid.
Although I was working in a school at the time, there was little by way of support. Examination anxiety was viewed differently: the attitude then was more about just getting on with it.
It was a heart-breaking time, not just for our loved one but for the knock-on effect it had on the whole family. We had no knowledge about carer organisations, or how our other children could be supported.
'Impossible': balancing work and caring
It was impossible to balance work and my caring role, which is why I was forced to leave my job. Nobody should be made to feel guilty – but within a school environment, it’s not easy to take compassionate or unpaid leave during term time.
You’re made to feel that it’s not the right thing to do, that you’re letting down the other teaching and support staff and, worst of all, the children in the school. Thankfully, it seems now that this lack of empathy has changed.
"So many people do not even view themselves as being an unpaid carer, and we all think this is the norm.
"But caring for a loved one – whether that is end of life care, a physical disability or health issue, or a mental health condition – means that we do all need a helping hand...each experience is different."
What would have helped me: to know I wasn’t alone
It would have been helpful to be given information signposting useful services. To have known about the work of our official carers' centre would have been a huge benefit. Our GP never mentioned that there were organisations that could have provided us all with the extra support needed then.
Nobody should feel they are on this journey alone, and thankfully there are lots of peer support groups that are of huge value. Local Councils are keen to highlight and share information of where you can seek extra help and support. The Carers' Trust is another useful port of call.
A lack of employer support
My employer did not make any effort to help support me with my caring role. When my own physical and mental health began to go downhill due to the worry and stress of supporting our loved one due to the escalating crisis at home, I carried a lot of extra guilt.
It was almost if 'they' wanted to 'help you' make the decision to resign. Colleagues supported as best they could, especially those who had their own lived experience of being a carer.
‘Remember to hold on to hope’
In hindsight I look back and am shocked at how things were back then but I have also seen much positive change and hold on to hope that things will improve further. Remember to hold on to hope, things can and do get better, and ask for help when you need it.
It’s pleasing to see the work of Hospice UK. I wish I had known about this organisation when my mother was dying from cancer, as it would have made such a difference.
Whether you work within the private or public sector there is always room to make improvements.
Change: what I’d like to see
I’d make it compulsory to have a Mental Health First Aider in all workplaces.
I’d also signpost staff to services and organisations and charities who might be able to help support people who are carers. The better informed you are about places where you can go for extra support the better able you will be to care for your loved one and still able to work.
A good employer will be an organisation who will allow you some time out, or who will allow you to work in a more flexible way, or even to offer home working with reduced hours.
So many people, when they apply for a job, don't let a future employer know that they are also a carer. It is rather like openly sharing a physical or mental condition, for fear it will jeopardise your chances of getting the job.
Showing compassion: what makes a caring employer
Not all companies are able to offer some form of compassionate leave. Larger organisations might be in a better place to offer this, but that does not necessarily mean they will.
There are some excellent employers who show compassion and understanding towards their staff. These are probably the companies who have employees who stay for decades because they are treated with respect, understanding and are seen as valued members of staff.
Showing compassion and understanding to others should be the norm. Always remember that any one of us could one day find ourselves in the role of being an unpaid carer.
Thank you to Mariska for sharing her story.