Foster Carer’s Mental Health
Author: Sarah Anderson FosterWiki Founder
I came into fostering from working in mental health in the NHS. Once I embarked on my fostering career and experienced the toll it takes on a carer’s mental health, I was staggered to find that it is not just a lack of awareness or support for a foster carer’s mental health, it’s a total absence and denial of its existence, its as though our mental landscape and emotional life is a huge void.
The worrying thing is that the very nature of the foster carer’s role means we are subjected to a higher number of mental health risk factors than most of our colleagues in the care industry.
Fully supporting foster carers’ mental health needs should be an everyday given.
Yet it is not, because despite foster carers suffering from things like secondary stress disorder, compassion fatigue, burnout, depression and anxiety, most suffer in silence. The outcome for me, like so many foster carers, has been a heavy toll on my mental health over the years.
I have frequently had feelings of profound sadness and have been bombarded with the most acute range of emotions for extended periods of time. I have felt utter despair for my children and young people. I have taken on board their trauma, heartbreak, grief, fear, desperation and loneliness. I have listened to and absorbed their stories of neglect and abuse, and I have felt the loss they have suffered. I am less like a sieve and more like a sponge, what affects them affects me, I take it all in and hold it with them.
On top of that, I have felt the anxiety, stress and frustration of being unable to help my children in the way I would like, I am not allowed to parent and accessing the support they need is nigh on impossible in a culture of budget cuts, high caseloads and blame. Often my sleep deprivation reaches intolerable levels during a missing episode when social workers and police demand that I am on call, awake and available continuously for days and nights on end whilst they themselves are on shift work. All this accumulates and our mental health suffers as a natural and obvious consequence.
Our children’s trauma and the impact it has on us is only one part of the foster carer’s mental health picture. The constant anxiety and anguish of allegations and the unacceptable unjust system around them, compounded by the lack of professional recognition and respect, having no voice, and living in a climate of fear due to the ambiguous and insecure nature of our employment all take its toll over the years.
You only have to mention feeling tired in our industry, let alone have a mental health issue, to come under suspicion and to have your practice and ability to do your job called into question, something that happens quite often to us. It, like so many things, is then recorded, noted, stored, bought up, again and again, exaggerated and elaborated and put on every report and every review about you.
Maybe it’s a conundrum for fostering providers, maybe they feel they can’t be seen to have carers with mental health problems. Maybe it is all too expensive and extra work when they’re already stretched, but it is short-sighted and a false economy. So many carers get lost to burnout and just having “had enough”, so many struggle on with no support for their mental health with consequences for placement breakdowns, stability, retention and outcomes.
Neither does the rhetoric around fostering marketing help, a message that promotes foster care as glorified babysitting, that little orphan Annie arrives and we all live in family bliss happily ever after, that fostering is no more than a spare room and a big heart. There’s no room in this narrative for secondary stress disorder, compassion fatigue or burnout.
This denial leaves an already depleted workforce suffering in silence, and ultimately, of course, impacts the children. Situations reach crisis level and the inevitable placement breakdowns ensue. Lack of early intervention, support and standard mental health maintenance delivers placement instability and poor retention, which in turn results in fewer and fewer foster carers.
With low recruitment and more and more children coming into care I don’t need to point out the obvious critical point we are reaching.
The truth is however that mental health issues do not prevent foster carers from functioning in their role, just as they do not prevent others from working, parenting or going about the normality of their day, but they do need addressing for future positive outcomes.
It is the obligation of the government and the providers to bring this issue into the 21st century, we live in a time where the spotlight is on everyone’s mental health, even more so given that we are living in a global pandemic, foster carers should not be an exception.
It is not just the children who deserve better, foster carers do too. Well, what’s left of us anyway.
If you have been interested in this article, or want to discover more you will find more detailed information on FosterWiki’s page on foster carer’s mental health.