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My Life: Student: Carer: Volunteer

10 July 2019

Abigail Agyemang

Abigail is a newly elected governor, age 25, so we asked her to write about her life as a carer, as a student and a volunteer and here she tells us.

Hello!

My caring role has definitely shaped my career path. I always wanted to be a scientist but as a child and young teen, I had no idea what profession I could pursue in the sciences or even if being a scientist was a profession at all!

I thought law or finance would be a safe option but having established that I definitely did not want to go into law and not feeling comfortable in the field of finance either I was at a standstill. Until at the age of 16, I unexpectedly became a carer for my mum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was here where I had also found my raison d’être.

Unique position

I have been in a unique position of witnessing a range of extreme symptoms of mental health problems such as visual, auditory and olfactory hallucinations, delusions, and fluctuation of mood in a real-life context of someone close to me and all the challenges that comes with it including, stigma, cultural barriers, confusion to name a few.

This made me develop some invaluable skills like organisation, time-management, self-motivation and resilience: all skills that employers are looking for in potential employees.

Additionally, I want to use my whole experience to enter the field of psychology because I was spending so much time reading and researching information about my mum’s condition, the brain and psychology that I realised the profession I want to be in, and that I am suited to, is in the Brain Sciences – as a Psychologist.
Rather than just complaining about the situation, I thought why don’t I join the profession? So my journey to becoming a Clinical Psychologist began.

Would it work?

How would mum manage or even cope without me there every day? Will she take her medication on time? Can she go to her appointments alone? How is she going to read and respond to her letters? Can she wake up at a reasonable time to make food for herself to eat? Would she be able to contact the council if anything needs repairing in the house? Will she panic and have a relapse? ...

Starting university is a stressful but exciting experience. As a young adult carer, it was even more stressful thinking about how much the dynamics of my own life but also my mum’s and my brother’s (who has Autism) would change.

Looking back

Having just completed the first year of an Integrated Masters degree in Psychology, I can take a step back to reflect on everything that I have achieved especially as a young adult carer and see just how much progress I have made so far.

I decided to live on campus at uni and not commute from home because I didn’t want my mum to solely depend on me for years to come and to be honest, I really wanted a bit of a change, a bit of space and a bit of my youth back.

Although I did regularly come home during the holidays and even on most weekends (because caring doesn’t magically stop once you leave home), I’m pleased to say that I was able to achieve all the aforementioned.

A leap of faith

Actually, taking that leap of faith has returned so many rewards. I feel a lot more independent, I have been able to experience university life, met so many people, made new friends and have had so many opportunities come my way that I would never have dreamt of before.

In saying that, there are still many challenges as a student carer.

Awareness of the welfare and mental health among young people especially at university is beginning to gain more traction but there is still a long way to go.

The welfare of student carers in particular is one in which I think is almost entirely overlooked as many student carers just get on with their studies along with their caring roles so it’s easy to overlook and many slip through the net.

Student carers have extra responsibilities that the average university student doesn’t have, making us more vulnerable to mental health struggles. During term time I juggle assignment deadlines, with volunteering and everything from booking medical appointments to accompanying mum there.

Grenfell

One of the most moving volunteering experiences that I have participated in was in the weeks and months following the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017.

It was exam season and I remember arriving in a near empty classroom ready for my psychology lesson. A few of us along with our psychology tutor stood staring out of the tall glass window panes of the classroom and from a distance we could see a stream of black smoke flowing from a tall building. Little did we know what travesty had occurred literally a few hours before.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, I felt completely helpless. I had this urge to help the people affected by the fire in some shape or form but I didn’t know how. I searched online to see if there was anything that I could do to help but it seemed that there was an overwhelming amount of volunteers already. I found a link to Kensington & Chelsea’s volunteers registration form and registered my email address.

A few weeks later, I received an email from a woman who was coordinating Grenfell Art Therapy at Al Manaar for the children affected in the local community. Along with a few other volunteers, we helped in weekly art therapy sessions run over the summer by qualified Art Psychotherapists. We would help set up the tables and refreshments ready for the session. Some young children would come in, crawling towards the LEGO pieces on the atrium floor, others would cautiously but curiously wonder around the crafts table before sitting and exploring the different paints, crayons, colouring pencils on multicoloured sugar paper and the other materials laid out on the table.

In the six months that I volunteered, I learnt the importance of what having a stable and confidential safe space meant for the children where they could express themselves freely through art after such traumatic circumstances without having to say anything. It was also a quiet and non-judgmental space where their parents and family members could also seek solace and to speak to us about what they were experiencing on their own terms. It breaks my heart to this day remembering what some of the things the children disclosed and the visible pain they and their loved ones were experiencing.

Fast forward two years and although many families are still seeking justice, it warms my heart to know that the NHS have a dedicated Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service where more survivors, bereaved family, friends or people in the community can access professional support if they want to.

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