Hundreds of children in Brighton and Hove are caring for a parent in secret. Children as young as seven are increasingly caring for a mother or father who is suffering from depression and drug and alcohol addictions as well as physical health problems.

Services to help young carers have reported a 40% rise in the number of referrals to services for young carers in the city in the past six months alone.

The Young Carers charity says it is struggling to give the children the support they need.

Experts fear there are as many as 2,000 children caring for a parent or sibling in the city.

One young woman who started caring for her mother and brother at the age of seven said: “I grew up very quickly.

“If I wasn’t there my mum and brother would be dead.”

Chief reporter EMILY WALKER spoke to some of the 150 unsung heroes being supported by the Young Carers charity.

CHILDREN as young as seven are being left in charge of their parents’ physical, medical and emotional needs and are often left isolated and with their own education and emotional wellbeing in tatters.

Brighton and Hove Young Carers supports more than 150 families in the city but estimates there are hundreds more caring for family members in secret.

The number of families receiving support by the service – funded largely by voluntary donations – has increased by 40% in just six months.

The reasons for the rise remains unclear, but increasing numbers of children are having to support and care for parents suffering from mental health problems like depression and anxiety plus substance abuse problems.

Brighton and Hove has one of the worst records for drink and drug problems in the country.

The youngsters take on the duties of nurses, cleaners, prison wardens and counsellors to look after their own mothers and fathers.

Children given more responsibility than most adults have to deal with often go on to develop their own difficulties. They struggle to live the carefree childhoods of their peers, cannot enjoy their free time and their schooling can suffer. Many go on to develop problems with anxiety.

Young Carers senior support worker Cheryl Pierce said: “We work with quite a broad range of people. We support anyone with long term health issues. A lot of the parents have difficulties relating their physical health, substance misuse or long term illness like cancer.

“We are currently working with carers aged from eight to 25.

“People are quite surprised that children that young are undertaking a significant caring role.

“Some of the families have care plans in place for additional support. They can be doing anything from running the family home, cooking, tidying up, cleaning, preparing meals and then physical stuff, helping with mobility like getting up and down stairs and personal care like helping them go to the toilet or wash.

“They often provide an emotional, caring role too. They have to offer emotional support for family members with mental health or substance misuse problems.

“These children just do that every day. They often don’t even realise that it is not what everyone else does.

“They take on an enormous responsibility and their education can be affected. They can be quite isolated compared to other kids.

“They are worrying about whether they have got enough money and what’s for dinner and whether the bills are paid. It can be a huge burden.

“We try to reduce the impact and protect them from having to take on inappropriate caring duties.

“We are currently working with 150 to 160 families and that’s a 40% increase in cases in the last six months.

“We are not sure what the increase is down to and are struggling to meet the needs of everyone.

“We think there are 2,000 young carers in Brighton and Hove so there are a lot more we don’t know about.

“We desperately need more resources.”

With more young carers seeking help, the charity is struggling to give them support and respite.

Senior support worker Kevin Hutchins added: “We have always felt there were a huge number of young carers that we are not officially aware of.

“It’s a double edged sword. As we have made people more aware of the work we do and other services have become better at reporting concerns, we have become increasingly busier.

“We want people to come forward but it means we have to make changes to the way we work.”

A study published in May showed there were 3,117 children under 16 providing help and support to parents, siblings and family members in Sussex.

Brighton and Hove Carers Centre, where Young Carers is based, relies heavily on donations from the public and has suffered severely from cuts to public funding. As well as supporting young carers throughout the year, the charity organises special events where the children they help get together for days of fun, relaxation and respite.

This week they held an event at the King Alfred Leisure Centre – with the support of Albion in the Community – to give the carers a break.

Carers who look after family members save the NHS and councils millions of pounds.

To support Young Carers or make a donation to the service people are asked to visit the website

‘If I wasn’t there my mum and brother would be dead’

Toxi Doyle first came into contact with Brighton and Hove Young Carers aged just seven.

Now 21, she has been a carer for her brother Alfi, who suffers from schizophrenia and MS, and her mother Yvonne, who suffers from a brain condition.

After receiving years of support from the charity, Toxi, now a children’s entertainer, returns to help other young carers deal with their responsibilities.

She said: “I grew up very quickly. By the age of 12 I knew how to do all the things an adult needs to do.

“I feel proud that I had the chance to do it. It made me a better person. It is hard work but I would rather be saving a life than being drunk on a Friday night. If I wasn’t there my mum and brother would be dead.”

‘I don’t mind helping out’

Caring for an eight-week-old baby is a daunting task for any mother. But 14-year-old Chloe O’Brien helps look after her newborn sister, Hope, as well as looking after her mother Stephanie who suffers from anxiety and depression.

She said: “I don’t really mind helping my mum, but it can be hard when you can’t do the same things as your friends.

“At home I have to do the hoovering, washing, washing up and things.

“I don’t mind helping out with the baby because I love looking after babies.

“Sometimes I can’t go out because I have to help mum.

“Young Carers helps me. I have made friends here who understand what it’s like and it helps you deal with things.”

Stephanie added: “I suffer from anxiety and depression. Chloe will remind me to take my medication and things and she helps with the baby’s feeds.

“Chloe is fantastic helping me round the house and everyday living.”

‘I’m so proud of him’

Straight-A student Thomas Perry helps his mother Claire care for his 11-year-old sister Emily who suffers from tuberous sclerosis.

Claire said: “Emily has seizures and has had brain tumours removed. Thomas has had to call an ambulance for her.

“He keeps an eye on her because she can’t be left alone for a second.

“He has to take on a lot and I’m so proud of him.

“It is something he’s always grown up with this because Emily’s always been like this.

“It is really hard, though.”

Thomas added: “It is a struggle a lot of the time. Sometimes she just won’t do something you want her to do.

“And it’s not just helping. Sometimes you just have to stay out of the way if she’s having a seizure or something and it makes it harder being around. It’s hard.”

‘Sometimes it all gets too much’

Doting over his two-year-old cousin, Jack O’Sullivan is a patient and attentive childminder.

But he is only 11 years old. He spends his life supporting his mother, Kerry Nee, but also looks after the demanding toddler and another cousin with autism.

“I support mum,” he said. “She has depression and I have to look after her.

“My cousin is there almost every day too. Sometimes I have to do things for my cousins too.

“I’ve got used to it because I’ve been doing it since I was about seven. Sometimes it all gets a bit much and I get anger issues.

“I suffer from anxiety so Young Carers helps me get things out in the open.”