Health & Fitness

We must start now to provide mental-health care for our young caregivers

In general, young people who are caregivers are more likely to have depression, school difficulties and problems getting along with teachers, and to bully others and behave poorly compared with children who are not caregivers.
In general, young people who are caregivers are more likely to have depression, school difficulties and problems getting along with teachers, and to bully others and behave poorly compared with children who are not caregivers. Miami Herald File

The role of being a caregiver can be stressful regardless of your age. There is significant research on the effects of caregiver burden in the adult population. However, there is little data regarding caregiver burden in youth.

Despite the limited data, we do know that many children are caregivers. One 2006 study of 12,681 Palm Beach County public middle- and high-school students found that about 1 in 2 students serve as a caregiver while they are a student.

In general, young people who are caregivers are more likely to have depression, school difficulties and problems getting along with teachers, and to bully others and behave poorly compared with children who are not caregivers.

Sadly, the resources helping these children are limited. This is, in part, because research regarding child caregivers is limited. There has only been one major research study, in 2005, assessing the effect of caregiving on vulnerable youth in the U.S. and only one well-recognized organization, the American Association of Caregiving Youth, researching the 1.3 million to 1.4 million affected children.

The United States, unfortunately, is significantly behind other countries that have more resources dedicated to helping these children.

Without committed organizations, all adults must recognize that youth caregivers come in different forms. They include both genders and have different religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. Their upbringing affects their expectations of the caregiving role, how long it lasts, and the number of people and ages of adults they are expected to care for.

The prevalence of caregiving youth will more-likely-than-not continue to rise in the United States. This is in part because today’s grandparents often supervise children while both parents are working. This makes it more likely that children will need to care for their grandparents, who are supposed to be caring for them.

Children who are caregivers often do not have the coping skills that are required for such an emotionally, physically and psychologically stressful role. Some may require treatment.

It is imperative that anyone who is concerned that a child may be depressed, suicidal, or suffering in any way makes sure that the child receives help.

If you suspect your child has mental-health consequences associated with caregiving, contact your pediatrician, or call 305-243-6400 to schedule an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist or mental health professional at the University of Miami Health System.

Children who are caregivers must be cared for.

Samantha Saltz, M.D., is a resident in psychiatry; Julia Belkowitz Lichtenstein, M.D., M.P.H., is associate professor of pediatrics; and Judith Regan, M.D., MBA, J.D., is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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