There is a hidden army working in Cumbria, without which health services would no longer cope and vulnerable people would not get the support they need.

In every community across the county these unpaid carers - often family members or close friends - are acting without recognition, putting the needs of others above their own.

They do it all because they genuinely care. Because they want to ensure their loved ones are properly looked after.

But who cares for the carers when things get too much?

That is where their back up team comes in. The local carers associations - Carlisle Carers, Eden Carers, Furness Carers, South Lakeland Carers and West Cumbria Carers - provide that all important lifeline.

This includes both practical and emotional support to carers in each locality. From simply offering a listening to ear and a cup of tea, to helping to set up extra care or filling out legal forms, these teams are very much valued by all who use them.

As well as providing support on a local level, these organisations have also teamed up to form a consortium, called Carers Support Cumbria, to carry out care assessments, draw up support plans and draw up wider plans to support carers' health and wellbeing.

A recent report, looking back over the last three years, reveals that they are reaching more carers than the 1,800 a year originally expected, and the numbers are rising every year.

Working together, they can also secure extra grants to enhance the services funded by their statutory contract.

Going forward, they are looking for new ways to reach out to those hidden carers that are still not receiving help, working together across the county to ensure nobody is struggling on alone.

If you are a carer or know someone who is, you can find out more about the help and support available by calling:

Carlisle Carers - 01228 542156

Eden Carers - 01768 890280

Furness Carers - 01229 822822

South Lakeland Carers - 01539 815970

West Cumbria Carers - 01900 821976

Mary Hartley and Hilary Wilson are friends with a special bond.

They both care for close relatives - Mary for her daughter, and Hilary for her husband - who suffer from severe mental health problems.

They both receive support from Carlisle Carers, but have also found solace in each other during some of the darkest times.

Hilary said she had only been married for three years when her husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia after a major breakdown.

He had to be sectioned and undergo treatment, including electric shock therapy, which helped but also affected his personality.

They went on to have a family and he did manage to work for a time, but he has needed a lot of care and support, and as he gets older is also suffering from physical health problems as well.

"It's 47 years since he was sectioned and I will never forget that day. It was a nightmare," she said.

"When that happened there was nothing for carers. We just had to get on with it. He's in his own world a lot of the time. He needs everything done for him, otherwise he would just forget."

Recently he started attending day care, and is enjoying going out and taking part in different activities.

This means Hilary can enjoy her time more, knowing he is happy. But if she wants a proper break, she has to pay for respite care - and he is not always keen to go even if she can afford it.

"From my point of view it can be very lonely. I see friends I went to school with who are off enjoying life. I haven't had a break for six months and I really need one. I'm 75 in August and I feel like I'm running out of time," she said.

That is why having Mary is so valuable.

"We've always said that the best support when you're a carer is another carer. You get really down times, but having someone like Mary is better than family. I've got some really good friends, but when you're not in that situation you can't fully understand," said Hilary.

Mary's daughter first took ill at the age of 17 and was eventually also diagnosed with schizophrenia.

She too has had to be sectioned in the past for her own safety and Mary said it has been incredibly distressing.

"She's been in the Carleton Clinic numerous times - so many I've lost count. She's been so ill that I haven't been allowed to see her.

"It can be a battle to get her the help she needs. When she's well she says I'm her rock, but when she's ill I become the enemy. She turns against me. It's not her fault. I wouldn't wish this illness on my worst enemy," explained Mary.

Now grown up, her daughter has her own house and thanks to new medication, her illness has been better controlled.

"When she's well she does enjoy life. She has friends and gets out and about. She can go for a good while and be fine, then bang, it happens. Suddenly she's back in hospital. It's very difficult. It does affect my own health. I worry and my blood pressure goes up," she added.

But Mary still provides regular support, and is always the person she calls in a crisis so can rarely relax.

As well as having each other, the women say the support they receive from Carlisle Carers is a real lifeline.

"They've been brilliant. I can phone them or go up there if something happens. They will make you a cup of tea and have a chat. It's just knowing they are there. Otherwise you can feel quite alone," said Mary.

Hilary added: "I make contact with them if I'm at a low. Sometimes you just need that chat."

The organisation also arranges social events, such as a theatre trip, for carers and provides practical support.

Hilary and Mary are also trying to help to raise awareness of carers, giving talks to trainee health staff and social workers so that they fully involve them in their loved ones care.

Laura Hulse Davis grew up in Penrith, but was living near London when her elderly father suffered a near fatal stroke in July 2016.

Told he was unlikely to survive the night, she rushed back north with husband John and daughter Greta to be at his bedside.

To everyone's amazement, he pulled through. But it became clear that both he and her mum were struggling with their health.

When the summer holidays came to an end, the family had to go back to Twickenham, but Laura remained concerned.

By Christmas her mum had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and was very poorly. It was then that Laura decided she needed to be nearer home, moving back to Penrith the next Easter.

Sadly her mum died just six weeks later, but Laura said she was pleased she got to spend so much time with her before her death.

It also meant that Laura could could help to care for her dad, who has suffered from mobility and memory problems since his stroke.

Laura first got in touch with Eden Carers even before she moved back to Cumbria, and they have been there for her ever since.

She meets someone from the organisation every couple of weeks, and said that has really helped her adjust.

"Being a carer is relentless, and you do not know what you are going to face from one day to the next. Even though we have paid carers coming in too, I still go in twice a day, sometimes more. It's exhausting, especially when you also have a young child who needs you.

"What I've found is that it is also incredibly socially isolating. I've always had a very good social life, but when you're in the thick of it with your family, a lot of people do not offer to help. They do not want to intrude or know what to say. Eden Carers treat you like a person who before all this had a social life," said Laura.

Moving back north was a big decision as daughter Greta, now eight, would have to settle in at a new school.

Laura, 51, is a fine artist and John a children's book illustrator, so they were able to bring their work with them - though Laura's care duties have meant her career has been put on hold for now.

Eden Carers have also helped by providing practical support, such as helping her access Carer's Allowance, and have helped her meet other carers and make some new friends locally.

Laura, who has also had support from the Penrith Quaker Meeting, said it is still difficult, but she hopes that being there for her dad will enable her dad to stay in his own home. She said she is also much happier living so close by to him, and Greta has settled in well.

"I just look on it that every day I've got with him is a blessing," she said. "When you become a carer, the life you know disappears overnight. You find yourself in a completely new situation. Life changes, but there are also lots of positives that come from it.

"We are a lot happier."

Looking after her elderly mother while juggling the needs of her own three children proved a real stress for Rebecca Thomas.

She was pulling herself in so many directions, and still feeling like it wasn't enough, that her own health started to suffer.

The 46-year-old, from Ulverston, explained: "Dad died in 2013. I think we probably hadn't realised how much he was doing for mum until then. Mum really struggled after that."

At the time her mother was living in Oxfordshire and really struggled to adjust, having never lived on her own before.

"They'd been together for years. They'd been going out since she was 18 so. It was such a big shock for her. She came to stay with me and it was obvious she was very anxious and quite depressed," said Rebecca.

At the end of 2014 she came back up to stay for Christmas and it was clear her health had worsened. The following spring she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and needed more support.

She moved up to Ulverston, into assisted living accommodation, to be near her family and get the help she needed.

Rebecca was pleased to have her mum closer, but over time the impact of becoming a carer started to take its toll.

"She was still really anxious. I'd go and see her every day, but if I didn't go she's have a panic attack," said Rebecca.

"I felt really torn. You want to do everything you can for your children, but also your mum. Every day it was a balancing act. You will have to compromise most? The children or mum?

"A friend said I should go to Furness Carers but because mum wasn't living with us, I didn't think I was a proper carer.

"I also didn't think we'd qualify for anything."

After some persuasion she went along - and her life changed.

"They were amazing. I told them everything I did for mum and they had at their fingertips a list of all the organisations that could help. I thought I'd have to go and make more phone calls, but they did it all."

From there, Age UK helped to arrange funding for someone to take her mum out once a week, then the Alzheimer's Society had a volunteer who would take her out on a different day.

They also provided support for Rebecca, including massage and mindfulness sessions, and helped draw up an emergency care plan so that her mum would not be forgotten if she suddenly took ill.

"The effect has been amazing. Mum now feels that she doesn't need me as much. She is enjoying go out with other people. They even take her to the theatre, which she loves," said Rebecca.

"I no longer feel alone. Being a carer can be really isolating. I also have a bit more time for my children, and for myself. Before that I really wasn't looking after myself. I just got on with it.

"Most of all, mum is very happy. The anxiety has pretty much gone. I can't stop the Alzheimer's but it's so good to see her happy. We are finally in a really good place."

Brian Richardson cared for his late wife Dorothy for over 20 years.

For much of that time she was bed bound, meaning they couldn't even go out for a walk and holidays were a thing of the past.

As a result, Brian rarely went out and lost his own social life.

The 72-year-old says that without the help of West Cumbria Carers, he doesn't know how he would have coped, physically or mentally.

Dorothy first took ill, initially with severe back problems, in 1996.

She was eventually diagnosed with a tumour on her spine and underwent surgery, but was left in severe pain. She also developed Crohn's and colitis, both serious bowel conditions, as well as other complications, and later suffered a stroke, affecting her right side.

As a result her care needs were extensive. "I cared for her for 21 years. Up until 2008 I did it alone," said Brian, of Workington.

After hearing he was struggling, West Cumbria Carers contacted him to say there was help available. Through them I got a carer from social services to help me through the day.

"In 2014/15 my wife's health was getting worse. She was bedridden and I was sleeping on the couch next to her."

As a result he started to develop arthritis in his neck. Staff at West Cumbria Carers saw it was affecting his health, and helped him secure much more care so that he could sleep in his own bed at night.

They also helped him with forms, including securing power of attorney, so he could deal with matters on behalf of his wife.

Without their support, he fears he would not have been able to look after his wife at home and they may have been separated.

"I had 21 years of continuous care, but the last five or six were really bad. There wasn't enough funding to get two carers together so I had to be used as a second carer," he said.

"Without the help from West Cumbria Carers I don't know what I would have done. She would probably have had to go into care, which is what she dreaded. I just couldn't have done it alone."

Being a full time carer was very isolating for Brian, who missed his trips out with his wife and gradually lost contact with friends.

"The last time I got out of the house with Dorothy was in 1999. We went to Keswick. I still remember it," he said.

But West Cumbria Carers helped him get out occasionally and meet others, arranging trips and holding an annual Christmas party.

Dorothy's health problems worsened last year and she ended up in hospital. She died in December, aged 70.

Brian can't fault the support he has received, and has remained in touch with West Cumbria Carers following her death.

"Without them I don't know where I'd be. I've had great support. In fact they've become friends," he added.

"I just want more people to know they are there. I had no idea."

Moira Holden lives with husband Thomas in Aspatria.

He has suffered with depression for many years.

At its worst, Moira feared he would take his own life.

She said she was incredibly worried about him, and at her wit's end.

The emotional strain really started to take its toll.

She found herself becoming a carer by accident.

He would face daily battles with his illness, and she was always there to try and help him through.

Luckily a community psychiatric nurse who was visiting her husband picked up that she needed some extra support. Moira said then she found the help she needed at West Cumbria Carers.

"When he was really bad Dot Barwise (from West Cumbria Carers) used to come and take me out," she said.

"We would go into a cafe for a coffee and I would just cry. It's not physical, it's the emotional strain.

"He did disappear once. I'll never forget it. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it."

Moira, now 81, said it was a weight off her shoulders to know there was always someone at the end of the phone who would listen.

The organisation also helped her to meet other carers in a similar position, while staff have helped her with practical support, such as helping her to fill out complex power of attorney forms.

They also take her out on trips at least twice a year.

"I would recommend them to anyone. They've done so much to help me, especially when things were really bad," said Moira.

The grandmother said thankfully, following recent changes to her 82-year-old husband's medication, his condition has improved a lot.

"We've had some good times and bad. At the moment we are grand. He's doing great," she said.