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Mental health prejudice further isolating Japan's young carers: survey

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TOKYO -- "I want a society where I can think it's okay to talk about mental health issues," read a response in an April 12 report on a government survey on young carers in junior high and high school. It was a single line, in a section for respondents to write freely, which gave a glimpse of real personal anguish.

    The survey report doesn't offer information to glean what kind of care the student provides, but it highlights, as researchers, supporters and others have before, the discrimination and prejudice toward mental health issues that pushes young carers looking after family even further into isolation.

    The government surveyed all second-grade junior high schoolers and second-year full-time high school students. Among students who said they care for their mother or father, 20% of middle schoolers and 15.4% of high schoolers said they did due to physical disabilities; the most common reason cited for both.

    A similar proportion cited suspected or known mental health or addiction issues -- 17.3% of junior high schoolers and 14.3% of high school students. Although there are a number of examples regarding what type of care children provide, situations involving parents with mental health issues were one of the most common circumstances.

    In many cases involving children living with parents who have mental health issues, they take on household chores in their parents' stead, and offer emotional care such as accepting words and actions for long periods of time from their parents who have sometimes been unstable.

    One of the experts involved in the government survey, professor Masako Kageyama of Osaka University, said, "For example, care like listening to what people have to say can involve constantly listening to the same topics repeatedly and letting them express negative feelings. It's not easy for children to support their parents." Children sometimes have to carefully choose their words in a tense situation to placate their parents. There are also times when their concerns about their parents mean they can't leave them alone.

    But it's not uncommon for children taking responsibility for this kind of care to feel unable to speak to those around them, and to sink deeper into isolation. This trend is also visible in the survey on children whose parents have mental health issues released at the end of 2020 by a research group that includes Kageyama and psychiatric nursing researcher Keiko Yokoyama.

    The survey was an online questionnaire sent to 240 people who have participated in Kodomopeer, the society for children with parents with mental health issues. It asked about experiences with care and consultations while providing care as a child in elementary, junior high or high school, and about support received in and out of school, among other circumstances. It received replies from 120 people.

    Only around 10 to 20% of respondents said they had had consultations with their schools regarding the burden of care or concerns in elementary, junior high or high school. Individuals who had not sought consultations were asked why, and their written responses included a conspicuous number to the effect of: "I thought it was something embarrassing that should be hidden." Detailed responses included, "I didn't want anyone to know about my parent's illness," and, "I thought it would be shameful for people to know there is schizophrenia in our family."

    Broken down by age, about 52% of respondents were in their 20s or 30s, and around 23% were in their 40s. In instances where a parent's illness was named, some 50% cited schizophrenia, and around 20% referred to depression.

    Kageyama said, "It's not uncommon to see cases where people fear prejudice from society and can't turn to others around them. Understanding of people with mental health issues must spread in schools and society."

    In some responses where schools were aware of the circumstances at home, respondents described "being hurt by the discriminatory things teachers said." It shows how children are pushed into a corner in an environment with insufficient understanding of mental health issues. What's needed for the support of young carers isn't just a system, but a change in societal attitudes.

    (Japanese original by Nao Yamada, Digital News Center)

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