“I am not broken, I just need help”

Young caregiver and experts talk about the challenges of being a youth caregiver

By Yesenia Barrios 

Abigail Gafter was 12 years old when she started taking care of her great uncle. He was obese, had substance use disorder,  and depression. 

“It’s almost like being a parent with a newborn going ‘okay, where do I have to leave you while I have to go do something for myself?’” said Gafter about her experience as a young caregiver during a recent episode of Therapy Thursday, a monthly Youthcast Media Group Instagram Live panel discussion.

An estimated 1.4 million caregivers in the United States are between the ages of eight to 18 years old and most are from low income families, according to the American Psychology Association. 

Gafter joined the American Association of Caregiving Youth (AACY) in 6th grade. The Florida-based non-profit supports young caregivers with resources to help navigate the often difficult process of caring for a loved one while needing care themselves. 

“A lot of the students we work with are still young, are still trying to figure it out,” said Rachel Viselman, a therapist at AACY who works with youth caregivers. 

Caring for sick family members is very common in the U.S., but little attention has been paid to youth caregivers, said Amoy Gordon, director of the Caregiving Youth Project at AACY. Many of them, who are juggling both school and caregiving, are under a constant state of stress that can significantly affect their mental health. 

Gordon said youth caregivers are at high risk of developing anxiety and depression at an early age. “A lot of our youth lose out on sleep and social time,” she said. “They don’t really get that time to be out or be a kid or a young adult because they have to spend a lot of time at home caregiving.” 

The AACY has partnered with 35 middle and high schools in Palm Beach County to provide resources such as therapy and tutoring to youth caregivers.  

Gafter, who is now 19 years old and an alumni of the program, says AACY’s resources helped her stay mentally healthy. “They would have a group once a month and they would ask how are you doing, do you need help, do you need a tutor?” she said. 

“A strong support system is very important,” to youth caregivers, who may have the added burden of financially supporting themselves, or their families, said Gordon. 

A support system can be as small as one or two trusted people or a group of people facing the same struggles. Being part of the AACY helped Gafter realize there were other young people she can relate to. 

Gafter was diagnosed with adolescent depression in 5th grade and has since explored different coping mechanisms to help her get through difficult times. “It is a little harder when you’re trying to tell someone that it is going to be okay when you have a voice in your head saying ‘why are you trying to comfort them, you don’t know it,’” she said.

Her mother’s support, and staying physically active with weekly exercise has helped her get through difficult times and cope with all the stress. 

The first and most important step to coping with depression or a mental illness in a healthy way is to allow yourself to feel the emotions and not suppress them, said Viselman. Everyone has a different way to cope and it is important to find an activity that helps you unplug. “Do something that lets you escape,” she said.

The AACY aims to raise awareness about youth caregivers and advocate for legislative change to have more funding and offer more resources. So far, the organization was able to partner with some Florida schools to count caregiving as community service hours and allow them to graduate.

But there aren’t enough organizations like AACY to help all the youth caregivers across the country, said Gordon. “It needs to start with awareness because if you don’t know something, you’re not going to do anything about it,” she said. 

Raising awareness also helps to destigmatize the idea some people hold that asking children to be caregivers is neglectful, Gordon said. 

“Let there be less shame because there shouldn’t be any,” said Gafter. “It is just someone became a little less fortunate than you and needs some help. I wish people would understand that.”