Youth in Care – Policy Forum

Young Australians want to see increased investment in the care and support sectors, and policymakers should pay attention, write Laura Davy and Honae Cuffe.

The future of Australia’s care and support sectors was a key issue in the 2022 election campaign, with extensive media coverage of the performance of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and planned reforms to the aged care system. But one group whose voice is often excluded from this conversation – and many other policy discussions – is young Australians.

The pandemic experiences of job loss, mental health issues and an increasingly unaffordable housing market have seen many young Australians emerge as politically engaged and ready to create change. Given this and their interest in the future of social protection policy as current and future caregivers and care recipients, policy makers should listen to what they have to say.

To find out what young people think of the care and support sectors in Australia, we held youth focus groups as part of a research project on young people and the future of care. Early findings show that young people, even those with no direct experience of disability, family care or care work, have strong opinions about care-related policies and service systems.

During the discussions, three main themes emerged around the support young people want to see in place for carers, people with disabilities and older people. Participants expressed a desire to see both increased income support payments and new investments in mental health services, including better targeted mental health support for young people and carers.

They also identified the importance of centering the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities, carers and families in the design of policies and services, so that these systems “empower them to make the decisions”.

These views were often informed by their experiences and those of those close to them during the pandemic.

Participants confirmed that the loss of opportunities for social interaction at school, work and university was difficult for young people during this time – although some noted that connecting with each other through technology may have been easier for them than for other age groups.

These negative effects were compounded for young people with family responsibilities. Young carers have faced increased stress from disability and mental health ‘surges’ in lockdown conditions, anxiety over finances and challenges coping with their own distress and studies and life. their professional commitments as well as those of the family members for whom they provide care.

Mental health was a major concern, especially for people with family responsibilities. The isolation and added anxiety related to COVID-19 has made it harder for them to find the energy to care for others. Young people with family members whose health conditions made them more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 were terrified of catching the virus and bringing it home.

Many young carers in the focus groups also identified as having a disability or health condition and said they did not receive the support they needed during this time.

But for some, the pandemic has relieved the stress of making ends meet with the Temporary Coronavirus Supplement and the COVID-19 Disaster Payment. The low rate of Australian social security payments forces many people to live below the poverty line, but these COVID-19 payments have temporarily lifted many people out of very precarious situations.

A young person, who was the breadwinner of her family as well as the main carer, underlined the profound impact of this unexpected silver lining.

“I think the most important thing that COVID did was give us more financial help…When that extra money came in, we actually kind of had the money to support ourselves,” she said.

So what kind of care policy change are young voters looking for?

One message for policy makers was particularly clear: increase the rate of income support payments at all levels. For participants, this would mean that people with disabilities and chronic conditions, and those who support them – including those who do not qualify for the higher rate payments – can live with dignity.

Participants also called for more funding for mental health services. Participants mentioned the long waiting lists for many psychological services and how issues of availability and affordability, exacerbated by the pandemic, can impact young people. They called for greater responsiveness to young people with caring responsibilities within the school system, as well as mandatory mental health first aid training for teachers.

Young carers wanted greater recognition from policy makers, schools and the general public that caring is hard work, often with implications for education, labor market participation and mental health and physical.

“I feel like people just need to realize that it’s…very tiring and stressful work…especially since we’re teenagers, we’re still technically kids,” said one participant.

They wanted a ‘bottom-up’ approach to designing and delivering support systems that truly addressed the experiences and needs of caregivers and people living with disabilities.

Applying for formal support, whether through a Disability Support Pension (DSP) or the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), has been described as an “extremely demanding” process, and the systems inaccessible often require even more help to navigate. In some cases, it falls to carers, including young carers, who are unfamiliar with government processes.

Jhere was even a warning that young voters are watching any party considering further “stealth cuts” in the NDIS.

“It shouldn’t be this…top-down approach, of them investigating and determining what a family and what this type of individual needs. [Families and individuals] should be empowered to make their own decisions and find the best way to care for them,” said one participant.

Engaging with young people on the future of the care and support sectors in Australia is essential. Not only will they also turn out in large numbers at the polls this election, but as caregivers, carers and people who will need support in the future, they will inherit the consequences of the policy choices made now.

This article is published as part of the Policy Forum’s new feature – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and insights that go beyond sound bites.

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