Foster Carers Need Support With Their Mental Health And Wellbeing Too
After meeting Croydon foster carers through our YoungMinds Welcome project, Andrea reflects on the impact caring for young people who are refugees can have on carers’ health and wellbeing.
After running a group for Croydon foster carers who are looking after unaccompanied minors, refugees and asylum seekers as part of our YoungMinds Welcome project, Andrea reflects on the emotional impact of fostering, and why these carers may need help to manage their mental health and wellbeing.
During Foster Care Fortnight, there is always a drive to recruit new foster carers. It’s understandable because at the moment, foster carers are badly needed. However, my experience of working with foster carers across the sector and now meeting the Croydon carers is that we need people who are able to cope with the challenging tasks we give them – and we need to support them to keep doing it well.
Over the years I’ve become very aware of the impact caring for vulnerable children can have on health and wellbeing, and the high levels of stress that many foster carers live with. Yet listening to these Croydon carers has helped me understand the complex the dynamics of everyday life in their households, and it’s made me appreciate just how challenging it can be.
How does it feel to be so far away from your family and everything familiar? How do you try to understand and adapt to a very difficult culture, where norms, values and even relationships between men and women can appear so strange to you?
How do you try to put the trauma of your past and recent journey behind you, especially when your future is full of uncertainty? How can you trust the stranger, whose home you are sharing, with the ‘truths’ and likely ‘untruths’ of your story? How do you focus on new opportunities, when you are worried about the loved ones you had to leave behind?
It must be so hard for this group of young people to manage all of these feelings. So not surprisingly, many of them are anxious, depressed or experiencing other mental health difficulties. It also means that the foster carers they live with are bound to feel the impact of their distress.
The foster carers I have met in the support group in Croydon have also talked about the dilemmas they face when they are asked to give their opinion about the age of the young person they are looking after. They are very aware that their judgement may shape the future of that young person, and may even mean they are returned to situations full of risk and danger. This can only add to the pressures that the carers must learn to live with.
So while it is important that all foster carers receive good quality training on mental health to ensure they understand the needs of these young people, they also need help and support to manage their own wellbeing and the powerful emotions that they may experience. And yet, I don’t believe that we have been very good at encouraging foster carers to talk openly about these complex aspects of their role, or at thinking more creatively about the support we offer them.
One of our sessions in Croydon introduced ‘Self-Care First Aid’, led by Liz Lark, and was very well received. The foster carers had never done the breathing exercises or stretches before, yet they were incredibly open-minded and willing to try - and they said it made a difference:
“I came here this morning so worn out. Physically. Mentally too. But leaving now it’s as if a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel calm, nourished, ready to start again.”
I’m not suggesting that yoga practices will work for everyone. But I do think we should acknowledge that being a foster carer is far from easy. And that over time these challenges may have an impact. So, if we are serious about promoting the mental health of all our children and young people, we have to look after their foster carers too. To help them to keep doing the very special thing they do.
YoungMinds Welcome is our project to support the mental health needs of asylum seeking and refugee children.
Through the project, we aim to build skills and capacity within the children's services workforce and help professionals to support the most vulnerable young people.
By engaging various workforces across East Kent and Croydon, we are working towards practical changes within local systems to promote a more trauma informed approach.