It is estimated that twenty percent of the Canadian population experiences a serious mental illness at some point in their lifetime. A portion of those that do so will be parents. Research indicates that in some circumstances, when a parent with a serious mental illness needs support that they are not getting from other adults or the formal mental health care system, the caregiving responsibilities can fall to their children. Sometimes called “young carers” in literature developed in the U.K. and elsewhere, there has been little attention in Canada to this population or the implications of the term “young carers”. Through a critical feminist lens, a small qualitative study was undertaken to explore the lived experiences of adults looking back on having been “young carers”, a perspective seldom taken in the literature.
The four study participants had all cared for their mothers in households with extended social networks that included fathers and siblings- an interesting counterpoint to the “young carer” literature, which has centered on isolated single parents with children. Participants described how they found themselves in caring roles, what their caring consisted of, and why they continued to care despite other options being available. The study reveals the intricate social pressures that the participants faced, and suggests that becoming a carer may be more complex than past studies have indicated. I examined participants’ stories with an eye to the structural forces that shaped their pathways as carers and their reflections on those pathways. The discussion focuses on what the participants’ experiences can tell us about the contemporary neoliberal political climate: how its emphases on individualism, independence and smaller government, contribute to the depletion of public mental health services and a troubling focus on sustaining “young carers” rather than questioning their positioning.