Young carers in Scotland are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, stress and sleep disorders than their peers, a study has found.
The research also found that a quarter of the 238 young carers who took part are caring for someone on their own. A similar proportion are looking after more than one person. But the report also suggested young carers often have greater feelings of self-worth than their counterparts who do not have caring responsibilities.
The study is said to be the first in Scotland to compare the health of young people who have responsibility for caring for someone in their household with those who do not. It was carried out on behalf of the Children's Commissioner in partnership with the Carers Trust Scotland and the Scottish Young Carers Services Alliance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that young carers with the highest caring responsibilities - between a third and a quarter of respondents - tended to report more negative health effects than those with lower levels of caring. They were also generally less happy, reported more stress-related issues, and were more likely to report sleep difficulties.
Young carers - who are classed as being those under the age of 18 - were also more likely to be in a lower socio-economic group when compared with the main young population. The researchers said this may be because there is generally poorer health and wellbeing in lower socio-economic groups. Or it could be that, where it is a parent that is being cared for, the fact that one of the adults in the family is not working may have impacted on the family's income.
The report found that the most common activity reported by young carers was spending time with the person they care for, followed by undertaking household tasks. Some 40% of young carers have to either dress or undress the person they care for at least occasionally, with financial and more intimate caring tasks undertaken less frequently and just over half have also reported having to help at some point during the night, at least occasionally.
But only 27% of respondents had accessed counselling support in the past year - although the quality of that support was not explored by the study.
Tam Baillie, the Children and Young People's Commissioner for Scotland, said many of the mental health problems highlighted by young carers could have a knock-on impact on other parts of their life. He said: "It is therefore vital that the new mental health strategy, which is due to be published by Scottish government, ensures that all young people, especially young carers, have access to appropriate mental health services." However, Mr Baillie also said the report made clear that young carers had differing needs, which could be a result of the level of care they provide and their own personal resilience. He added: "We must make sure that they are supported by ensuring limited resources are targeted at those who care the most."
Karen Martin, a mental health development coordinator at the Carers Trust, said that a more positive aspect of the report was the importance which younger carers placed on school. She said: "This may be because it is a place where they can get a break from caring or because it offers the opportunity to be with other young people. "Either way, it gives much needed impetus for improving and increased partnership working between school and young carers' services, to make sure the most vulnerable aren't being missed."