Are the BBC including young carers in their diversity initiative or was it just a one off?
Did BBC’s Doctor Who spin-off intend to highlight young carers and how being a young carer impacts them personally, or was it just a gimmick to portray sweet sixth former April as being more resilient than she lets on? If the former – it is about time that being a young carer as being a normal aspect of a person’s life is taken seriously outside of Children in Need. If the latter, for heavens sake, emotional and physical support of a parent does change it.
The definition of a young carer is: someone ages 18 or under who helps look after a relative with a disability, illness, mental health or drug problem (NHS). Help may be physical, extra jobs around the house, emotional support, caring for younger brothers and sisters, and other tasks. Most young carers start caring at a young age, and many don’t realise they are carers for years. A report by the children’s society in 2013 suggests that over 150,000 children in the UK provide care meeting the above criteria. That is a lot. And it is probably an underestimate.
As a young carer myself when I was a teenager, I didn’t like to tell people about my family’s situation. In fact, it took me a good year to realise others in my secondary school class didn’t live life the same way I did. I like to think that being a carer and helping out so much at home made me even more kind. It certainly gave me a bit of a ‘mum-complex’. I am the mum-friend. I am the one who will have plasters or a shoulder to cry on when it all gets a bit too much. At school, I always made sure I was extremely reliable, that I could talk to the teachers, and I tried my best to talk to my peers. In fact, I was so reliable, people took it for granted that I would pick up the slack. While watching BBC Class, I was struck by the similarities between my own school experience and that of April. April is kind, she is sweet, and she wants to help others. In response, no-one helps her decorate for the prom and she ends up nearly getting killed by a shadow creature from another dimension (Which, I suppose right now sounds a little like an analogy for depression).
All this was before you meet her mum. Her mum is wheelchair bound. Like any other normal teenage who is sick of being treated like a walking doormat, April understandably vents at her mum about how being ‘nice’ equates to being a walkover. She then tries to cover it up with a laugh, a joke, a ‘don’t worry, it’s just silly teenage stuff’. Her mother isn’t having any of it, and replies ‘you aren’t nice, you’re kind, there’s a difference’. And there really is.
See, young carers have to think of the rest of their family before their own health. It becomes second nature. Second nature to think ‘before I do x, I need to do y,z,a and b’. And you are reliable, you are kind. Because what you are doing, day in day out, caring for a relative, unpaid and often unrecognised outside of the household, it does affect you. April doesn’t want to let her mum worry, nor does she want to let other people down. (Although, in my opinion, she is a little disorganised in leaving volunteer finding till the day before she has to decorate. As a young carer you learn to plan for unexpected eventualities).
I have become accustomed to only really seeing young carers on Children in Need, but not really in a mainstream drama. I mean, there was one episode on Waterloo Road a few years ago. And while Class isn’t exactly mainstream, Doctor Who is. So, I can’t help but wondering why the writers chose to include this representation of young carers…why now? And I think it is partially to illustrate a point. (Spoiler Alert for the episode) April has to share her heart with a creature in another dimension, and spends half of the episode trying to work out how to breathe properly to overcome this new deficit (Again, the analogy for depression is so strong here). At the end of the episode, when asked by another character how she can be so positive about her new ‘condition’, she tells him the story of her mum. How she was involved in an accident that left her paralysed, and if her mum could adapt to that, she could adapt to her current situation. And ain’t that the truth? I was once asked by a friend how I could still be so eternally optimistic after everything in my childhood. I just shrugged and replied that you get used to it. You adapt. You learn that yes, things can get worse, so take the good days as they come so you can ride out the bad days. It’s a survival technique.
Seeing a young carer as a main character, especially in a role where being a carer isn’t her defining characteristic… it was good. In fact, to me, finding out about April’s mum made some aspects of April make sense. Here, I am not sure if I am projecting. I consider my reliability and my kindness to be inherent aspects of my personality, along with my mum-behaviour. I can’t help it. But I consider these innate personality factors to have been amplified by being a young carer. I may be projecting my own feelings about the matter onto April in the show. But at the same time, I hope we see more of April and her mum, being a mum and daughter and April casually helping out around the house without thinking about it. I don’t want being a carer to be a defining characteristic, because I don’t consider having been a young carer as being defining to who you are. It just becomes a part of your day-to-day. You adapt.
I hope that the BBC were intentional with this, that young carers will be allowed out of the Children in Need box and integrated into popular culture. Because yes, while CIN does raise awareness and we are grateful for the influx of funding – people still don’t see us as anything more than a charity case. We aren’t. We are people. We deserve to be seen.
So, thank you Patrick Ness, for giving young carers representation in Class, whether intentional or not. And actually, was it intentional?