Autobiographical film highlights plight of child carers

Ottilie von Henning (left) as Alice in See Saw and Fiona McGee as her mum Joyce.

Ottilie von Henning (left) as Alice in See Saw and Fiona McGee as her mum Joyce. - Credit: Archant

When Emma Lindow was growing up with a mentally ill parent she found little support through school or her wider family network.

But it was that experience which spurred her on to make an autobiographical film about child carers so authentic and poignant that it has been picked up by the NHS and a mental health charity to help staff aid other youngsters suffering in the same situation.

The 35-year-old’s short family drama Seesaw focuses on fictional teen Alice – played by Mossborne Academy pupil Ottilie von Henning – an only child and sole carer for her mentally-ill single mum Joyce.

The moving film, which was shot in Stoke Newington, shows a snapshot of a day in the life of Alice at the ages of 10, 13 and 16, and how she is changed over time by her role as carer.

Ms Lindow, 35, who lives in Pembury Road, Lower Clapton, made the film to give a voice to young carers who she feels are “invisible and unsupported” in society.

She said: “I’m quite passionate about kids living in that situation where they are forced into caring for their parents. Obviously no one really chooses that.

“Children with mentally-ill parents, drug addicts or alcoholics don’t get the same kind of attention as those who have disabled parents, but they are in the same position as anyone who has a mum in a wheelchair or a dad who’s deaf.

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“It’s almost worse because they have a parent who can’t even look after themselves. It’s more stressful, traumatic and debilitating but no one seems to want to talk about it.”

Many people who have seen the film have since told Ms Lindow they never considered there were children living a life like Alice.

Ms Lindow, who has found the film therapeutic to make, knows first-hand how there can be a lack of support.

She said: “Sadly, the social stigma still surrounding mental illness means that children like Alice who are deeply affected by the mental health of a relative carry this burden around like a dark secret, because nobody they come into contact with wants to talk about it.

“I’m quite open about the fact the film is biographical now. I wasn’t at first, which goes to show after all this time I was feeling social stigma and embarrassment about it, but it’s important to put that out there.

“I grew up with a strange concept of what’s normal. It’s only in your teens when you become more socially aware, you start to look at other people’s parents.”

Because of the film’s authenticity, Ms Lindlow was approached by the NHS and Young Minds, a child and adolescent mental health charity, which are both now using Seesaw to train staff and care workers in safeguarding children of mental health service users.

“They are using it to think about not just the patient but the immediate family, that they might have kids and to make sure that they are safeguarding those children. It’s great to hear they are thinking about that. My experience is a long time ago and things will have changed.

“The feedback I got from the NHS is that it was a realistic and believable example of what would happen to a girl like that if she doesn’t get any help.

“At least now people are starting to talk about mental illness, people are less scared to brush it under the carpet, but not back then, no way, no one wanted to know about it.

“I was really worried about offending people with this film, because we made the decision she should walk away, when I was growing up that was one reason I didn’t talk about my mum a lot, the judgement is endless, people felt it was my responsibility to help her heal herself, they used to say this to a 13-year-old.

“But as an adult Alice has to make this heartbreaking choice that, ‘this person is just negative in my life and this is what I’m going to have to do to turn my life around’.”

Seesaw was also shown at the Nightpiece Film Festival for short films as part of the Edinburgh Fringe last month.