Autumn-Rose Beard, now 19, has been caring for her stepfather and sister since she was 10 years old. Like so many other young carers, she had little choice in the matter. Her stepfather has borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety, and her younger sister has dyspraxia and anxiety. Beard is now a nursing student at Sheffield Hallam University.
"There is never an average day as a carer," Beard says. "When at home, as soon as I wake up I have to organise my thoughts about what I will have to face downstairs. This is mentally exhausting before the day begins. I do not know if I will face happiness, sadness or doom."
More than 6.5 million people are unpaid carers for a loved one in Britain, according to the charity Carers UK. On Carers Week, Beard tells IBTimes UK what her life is life – and why better social support for carers is so important.
"I assist my mum with her caring role and I step into her role when she has time away," she says.
Beard starts her day by giving her stepfather his medication – there are five pills in the morning and five at night – and then she prepares breakfast.
"I have to make sure that he has eaten some breakfast and possibly prepare some nutritional meal for him to eat, bearing in mind he probably has not slept at all the night before.
"He may have had really horrible nightmares and may want to tell me about them. I may have to do some personal care if my stepdad has an accident."
At the same time, Beard makes sure her younger sister is up in time for college. "I have to make sure she has eaten, I have to remind her to have a bath and make sure her clothes are clean and suitable for her day," she says.
Beard then has some time to eat her own breakfast, but as she suffers from anxiety, too, she often struggles to eat. "I then need to get a taxi to college with my sister. She cannot walk far and I cannot drive yet. I drop her off and possibly walk back home just to get some fresh air," she says.
Around 13% of carers are looking after someone with a mental health problem, according to an NHS survey. Women are more likely to be carers than men.
"We cannot watch television or listen to the radio as this has an impact on my stepdad's mental health so silence is my only friend," Beard says. "I attempt to do my homework and revision but this may be an issue. My stepdad cannot be left for too long on his own as he may self-harm. It is a never-ending circle."
While seeing her stepfather and sister reach certain milestones is rewarding, Beard adds that she sometimes still feels isolated and trapped.
Research shows she is not alone. Millions of people in the UK who care for sick, disabled or elderly relatives or friends are missing out on chances in life because of a lack of support, according to a report published for Carers Week.
Out of a study of more than 6,000 carers, half said they have let a health problem go untreated or have seen their own mental health deteriorate. In a 2014 report by Carers UK, 57% of carers said they had lost touch with friends – with almost half attributing this to a lack of practical support to allow them to socialise.
For Beard, support from local organisations and her mother has given her the time to go to university, which has allowed her to build a future for herself and meet other young carers.
"As you can imagine, coming to university was a big leap for me and gave me a great surge of independence," she says. "At college I had to work three times as hard as everyone else because I had to face my home life as well as studying for exams. My mum has done so much for me to make sure that I did not get trapped into the role of caring."
"Making sure that I took every opportunity offered to me helped me move further towards my future," she says. "I have faced poverty, isolation and loneliness at such a young age because there is no time or opportunities to be a child or a teenager without carrying the weight of the people that you care for on your shoulders."
With better funding for social care support, more carers like Beard can break the barriers to maintaining their health and balancing work and education with their caring responsibilities.
"Even now while I am at university, the isolation continues mainly because it is still my life, it is there forever," Beard says. "However, there is so much support at the university and being able to support other young carers gives me a sense of purpose."