Young carers and mental illness

A mental health condition is just like any other kind of illness that can be treated with proper medical help. It is quite common for people to experience a mental health problem and many people will be affected at some point in their life.


When people are scared, nervous or excited, their bodies release a chemical called “adrenaline” which makes their hearts beat faster, and can make them feel hot or sweaty. Occasionally, when someone's anxiety suddenly feels as though it's too much to cope with, their body releases lots of adrenaline very quickly. This is what's often described as a "panic attack" and although it can be frightening, panic attacks are not dangerous and will go away after a while.

Many people get anxious at times and have feelings of being worried, scared or frightened. However, some people have such feelings of anxiety, even at the smallest things, that it can make life very difficult. This is often called “generalised anxiety disorder”.

To help with anxiety and panic attacks, it is worth chatting to a doctor who may be able to prescribe medication. People also find that counselling, yoga, relaxation exercises help as well.


Depression can cause people to feel sad, tired and have trouble sleeping. It can make life feel very difficult and even the simplest of things can cause a lot of worry. Some people feel constantly depressed whilst for others depression can come and go in “cycles”. Medication prescribed by a doctor and talking to someone (like a counsellor, a psychotherapist or a community psychiatric nurse) can be a big help for people suffering with depression.

As a young carer, you can talk to the person with depression and ask them what type of treatment they are having and how their condition affects them. If you feel depressed (because of the worry and stress of caring for someone) then it is worth you talking to someone yourself.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Obsessive compulsive disorder - often called OCD for short - is a mental health condition which causes people to have the recurring thoughts and ideas that won’t go away and that people think that they need to act upon. For example, someone with OCD may wash their hands a lot because their mind is telling them that their hands are dirty. They may have to make sure that things are placed in a certain order because they suffer from a lot of anxiety and worry if they think things are out of order.

People suffering from OCD may not even know the reason why they do things in a certain way, it’s just that it’s important to them that they do. It is important to remember that medication and counselling can be a good way of helping people with OCD.


Schizophrenia is an illness that stops people from telling what is real and what is not. Sometimes people with schizophrenia might hear voices or see things which aren’t there. Some people with schizophrenia might be very confused and behave strangely.

People with schizophrenia can get help with their condition by taking regular medication and getting care and help from a doctor, mental health worker or community psychiatric nurse. Sometimes people with schizophrenia might need to go to hospital for a while so that they can be looked after properly.

There's more information about psychosis and other mental health issues on the Young Minds website.

Self-harm and suicidal behaviour

Self harm is when people injure or harm themselves on purpose and there are a number of reasons why they might do this. Sometimes it’s because they are really sad or depressed and by hurting themselves they feel that they are releasing themselves from some of the pain and distress that they feel inside.

Some people might want to punish themselves or do it because they hear voices telling them to. Some people find things so difficult that they start to have thoughts about killing themselves. For many people, these thoughts are very secret, but others might talk about killing themselves, and perhaps even make threats about it.

Young carers who are looking after someone who self harms or feels suicidal might find it really upsetting to know what is happening. It’s important to remember that they are not doing it because of anything the young carer has done. They do it because of how they feel inside.

If you care for someone who self harms or feels suicidal, you should try to talk to them or to talk to their doctor, psychiatrist, or counsellor (if they have one).

Common questions

What will happen if I leave them on their own?

You will never be able to be with the person you are looking after for 24 hours a day. The best way to keep them safe is for them to get help from an expert, like a doctor, nurse or social worker.

You could help by writing a list of people to call in an emergency, or things the person could do to cope if they feel stressed.

Think about other members of the family, friends or neighbours who are around and ask them for help too. If you are at school or college, you could talk to a teacher and see if they will let you have access to a phone. This could help you and the person your care for to feel more relaxed when you're apart.

Will it happen to me?

Even though some people may develop a mental health condition similar to one that their parent has, it is not very likely that this will happen.

Although genes may play a part in some mental illnesses, there are usually other things that contribute such as stress. Even if you have heard that a family member's illness is “genetic”, this doesn't mean that you will definitely be affected too.

All young carers who are caring for someone else need to take care of themselves too. Getting exercise, eating properly and sleeping enough can all help, as does talking to others in a similar situation and taking time out to relax. Support may be available in your area from a local young carers project. The confidential Carers Direct helpline (0300 123 1053) can help you search for a project in your area.