Megan May shoulders more weight than many people her age.
The 19-year-old has cared for her sibling Simon, who has autism, since she was in primary school.
Both of her parents fight their own health issues, so Megan works only casually at a beauty spa and stays home to look after Simon four days a week — often spending hours trying to get him out of bed.
Holding the family together has meant sacrificing a social life and everything else about typical teenage life.
That has taken a toll.
Ms May said it played a part in her history of anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.
“A lot of that stemmed from a lack of self-worth because a lot of my attention was going into other people and I never had time to sit down with myself and say ‘hey I’m actually doing really well’,” she said.
“There’s also a lot of isolation you get when you’re not like your peers.”
The ACT’s peak carers body has recently boosted mental health support, hiring its first counsellor dedicated to young adults.
Ms May welcomes the initiative, saying the transition from childhood to adulthood has been tough.
“You’re just a child with a drinking licence and you’re not sure how to [act like an] adult,” she said.
“You get a lot of respite care and mentoring as a child and a lot of agencies lose that as you get older.
“Some cut-off or change support at 18, others at 24, and a lot of the time it’s not made clear to the carer or family.”
Laura Piscopo is grateful for the SHAW scholarship she has received through Carers ACT (ABC News: Andrew Kennedy)
Carers are a high-risk group for mental illness.
But those aged between 15 and 24 are also less likely to have jobs than others their age, with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reporting a 57 per cent unemployment rate in 2017.
Only 40 per cent of carers aged 19-24 attend university or TAFE, and they are much more likely to stay on welfare payments than their non-caring peers.
That is why Carers ACT is also offering more financial support.
It is looking to extend its scholarship program, funded by SHAW Building Group.
Carers ACT’s Lisa Kelly has already seen it change the lives of many young carers.
“There’s this look in their eyes that that dream they thought they could never achieve might actually come true,” Ms Kelly said.
It helped one young man restart a trade he was forced to give up when his mother died, while he looked after his father with heart problems.
But Carers ACT only found out about that man’s struggles through the media before offering the scholarship.
Ms Kelly believes many more people would not realise they qualify for the help of up to $5,000 towards tertiary education or apprenticeships.
“We are looking at making sure that any young carer who requires assistance to reach their goals in their life around education and their career is able to get that support.”
Laura Piscopo, 19, cares for her mother with a chronic illness. She says the SHAW scholarship has been lifechanging, allowing her to follow her dreams of working in the disability sector.
“It’s been fantastic because I’ve always wanted to go to university,” she said.
‘My mum is a big inspiration’
Chantelle Pellegrini has been a key voice in driving change in the recognition of young carers.
The 19-year-old has cared for her mother, who suffers from chronic pain, since she was a young child.
As a teenager she also cared for her father who died of a brain tumour in 2014.
Chantelle Pellegrini and her mother Assunta Ariolo at the cubby house Chantelle’s father built her before he passed away (ABC News: Clare Sibthorpe)
“It all happened when I went into high-school, so caring for mum and dad and trying to keep up good grades, I really struggled mentally,” she said.
“It was extremely difficult. I remember always being confused as to why this all happened to me.”
But Ms Pellegrini pushed through the adversity and has started studying part-time this year — all while working part-time, running the household and looking after her mother.
“It’s tough, but my mum is a big inspiration to me,” Ms Pellegrini said while holding back tears.
“When I was young, people at school would say athletes and celebrities are their role models, but mine has always been Mum.”
“Since getting my job I’ve started saving money to give back to her so she has less pressure, because as a child she gave me everything and I want her to know it’s OK and I can help out now.”
Ms Pellegrini sat on the Carers Voice Panel which helped form a 10-year strategy to better support Canberra’s carers — a partnership between the ACT Government, Carers ACT and democracyCo.
She said Carers ACT’s counselling and scholarships support was a great first step, but there was more to be done.
One initiative she supported was a proposal from Ms May — the youth representative on the strategy’s taskforce — for a mentoring program where older carers help younger ones.
She also wants to see agencies provide more social activities for young adults to help with her feelings of isolation, saying most offer more for children.
“A lot of us give up — it gets too tough,” she said.
“I just hope [the new strategy] helps reduce that, that it helps people look forward in life and achieve great things knowing that their situation doesn’t have to stop them.”
Young carers are ‘heroes of hope’
Carers ACT’s Lisa Kelly says more mental health and wellbeing support is a focus of the new strategy (ABC News: Clare Sibthorpe)
The strategy is on track to being rolling out in the coming months.
Ms Kelly said a big part of the action plan will relate to improving community awareness of carers and just how much they give.
“But it can be as simple as offering to cook dinner if you’re a neighbour,” she said.
“Carers are heroes because they remind us that there are people that give love and compassion so effortlessly without asking for anything in return.”
“They are heroes of hope. And they are heroes that show love and compassion still exist in the world — and sometimes we forget that.”