Admitting to feeling the strains of caring for a parent is considered "disobedient" in Confucianism, a culture embedded in many families of East Asian heritage. The diaspora's mental health needs risk being compounded by a lack of empathy from western counsellors, writes Megan Lam. 

What is a young carer? According to the Care Act's Statutory Guidance, a young carer is an individual under the age of 18 who provides care for another person; these responsibilities are practical and/ or emotional.

"The biggest challenges were not from the caring itself, but the repression of my own burnout and anxiety of how I may be viewed if I expressed it."

Such children and teens are difficult to identify in school systems, and many are unaware of the impact caring roles can have on them.

I was the one in 20 children that missed most of my final schooling years. This coincided with erratic grades; struggling to keep up with having a normal secondary school experience; losing friends; horrible rumours; sleep deprivation; and unbeknownst to me, developing depression of my own. The school finally pulled me into a meeting – they notified me that my grades were fine, but I could potentially be expelled for not adhering to the minimum amount of attendance.

“I’ve just been taking care of a parent. They’re not feeling too well”. That was all I had said.

There was an unprecedented amount of shame and guilt even in thinking of telling someone I was struggling to care for a depressed parent with suicide ideation.

Responses led me to disconnect

"But there is nothing to be ashamed of."

This was usually the response I got when speaking to a counsellor. It was frustrating, and led to an immediate disconnect. They were seeing me in context of the international school I went to: an environment that encouraged us to be “individual and critical-thinkers”. They were not seeing me in the light of the traditional family values I was raised in, which will always be the fabric that defines me.

Filial piety ( 孝 ) is one of those core traditional 'Confucian' values. Roughly rendered, ‘filial’ means ‘from a son or daughter’ and ‘piety’ means ‘devout’. The word in itself is a logogram demonstrating the classified relationship between the elder and younger generation - elder (ie. character on the top = 老 ), and word for child at bottom =( 子 ). The English translation does not do this virtue justice in terms of the breadth of attributes it means to be filial.

Devout children - examples of how we are expected to act in the culture of Confucianism

Yuan dynasty scholar Guo Ju noted exemplars of qualified filial children:

One of the prized works is titled "Burying his Son to save his Mother"; parents come first and children have to make obligated sacrifices.

Confucianism is not a religion, but rather a social and ethical philosophy that has embedded into a larger social system. Therefore, it is difficult to get an exact number of ‘followers’. The virtues were written in the early Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), and can be found in other regions and religions without being explicitly Confucian.

These classic teachings are sewn into the threads of many East Asian families. On a larger scale, they are represented in legal systems from Singapore to Beijing.

Families are the basic bricks that build the structural pillars of society. This micro hierarchical system of respect is extended and applied to one’s country. I would not dare call my mother by her first name. My younger brothers do not call me by my first name. I still do not know the full names of my aunts, uncles, and elder cousins.

There are proper titles in place that dictate the seniority and place each family member holds in the hierarchy we call ‘family tree’.

The devotion and service to our elders are similarly transferred and used in serving one’s country. Defiance of that deference is unfavourable.

I thought I was supposed to suffer too

Taken together, I thought that - as a young carer - you were supposed to also suffer by virtue of caring for a parent. The biggest challenges were not from the caring itself, but the repression of my own burnout and anxiety of how I may be viewed if I expressed it. Speaking up equated to complaining and disobedience. Elders would remind me that it is my duty of servitude, but would follow the comment up with praise.

I am proud to have been brought up with traditional core values. However, the contagious effect caring duties bring are rarely spoken about. Here's to starting a larger conversation on creating more culturally empathetic shifts towards caring duties and mental health.

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