Lee Holmes* is an 11-year-old boy. He lives with his mother in a
small rural town in Somerset. On the surface he is like any other
normal child his age: baggy trousers, brand trainers, Eminem
booming from his headphones and a mischievous smile.
But at home things are far from normal for Lee. He is one of an
estimated 10,000 young carers who provide care for a parent with a
mental health problem.
Amanda, Lee’s pleasant, 38-year-old mother, developed
bipolar mood disorder in her early twenties. She was married for
four years. Her husband was, in her words, a kind and gentle man,
hard working and honest. But, as her illness became more acute, he
found it increasingly difficult to cope. He left when Lee was
Amanda says that raising Lee on her own has tested her to her
limits, sometimes to the detriment of her physical and mental
health. She has done a good job.
I first met Lee a few weeks ago. A colleague and I have set up a
young carers group for children who have a parent with a mental
health problem. We want to provide young carers with a chance to
talk about living with a parent with a mental health problem.
It is also an opportunity to learn more about mental illness in
an age-sensitive and appropriate way. But it is also about having
fun with children of a similar age and enjoying some time away from
the difficult, demanding and confusing lives that most of them
lead. It is well attended!
Lee tells me that “because mum is up and down all the time I
don’t know how best to help her, so I just get on and do most
of the jobs. I do most of the cooking, shopping, cleaning. I know
that my mum appreciates what I do; it is just that she can’t
show it at the moment.”
He also described the painful reality of being bullied at
school, suffering stigma by association, and the inconsistent
support that he receives from the school staff. “Some of them are
brilliant and really understanding. They know that if I am 15
minutes late I have been doing jobs for mum, but others give me a
hard time and can’t understand. I normally get a detention at
least once a week for being late or not having a clean school
Research shows that one-third of children will develop emotional
and behavioural difficulties and a further third will develop
significant psychological problems and disorders as a result of
living with a mentally ill parent.
Lee has responsibilities and expectations placed on him far
greater than should be expected of a child of his age. In running
our group we hope that in a small way we can make a difference for
children like Lee: giving them a voice, giving them a chance to
express themselves, a chance to be heard and a chance to enjoy
* Not his real name
Mark Sloman is a social worker, community mental health