Surviving the tough times

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It’s four and a half months since Nora was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety. Without doubt, these have been the worst four months of my life.

Despite being terribly ill, Nora is now making a remarkable recovery. I have already written about this so won’t bore you again with the details.

At her very worst, I always knew Nora would get better. She is, without question, the most single-minded and determined person I know. It’s not just me who thinks this. Her father, brother and CAMHS care workers are all in agreement. She is a force to be reckoned with.

Caring for a child with a mental illness is scary and lonely. You will need as much help as you can get. Here are some of the things that helped me through the worst of times. They may not all be relevant for you, but one or two might help you along the way.

Friends and family

I am immensely proud of how our little family pulled through this together. Nora’s brother, four years older than her, has done so much to help and support her. From spending time with her when she was at her very worst, to cracking jokes and having fun with her as she recovers, he has been the best big brother she could ask for.

Miraculously, my husband and I seem to have dragged out way through this relatively unscathed. We really dug in and got each other through each day. We were there for each other and our kids when we all needed it most.

As for my friends, I have simply been stunned by people’s kindness. Many of you will be reading this and I want you to know your help, love and friendship were never more appreciated or more needed.

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Music

Soon after Nora fell ill, I discovered a singer I hadn’t heard of before. Her name is Camille O’Sullivan, and her music got me through some of my darkest moments. One song, in particular, resonated with me. I still can’t listen to it without weeping. It is raw and powerful and full of love.

CamilleHere’s a link if you’d like to hear it for yourself: Camille O’Sullivan singing Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.  Put the volume up high, sit back and let the music work its magic.

Wise mental health professionals

I’ve written previously about our negative experience with one CBT counsellor, and the ill-informed paediatrician who ‘didn’t believe in mental illness’. On the whole, however, our experiences with doctors and mental health professionals have been overwhelmingly positive.

It’s important you know this. I’ve spoken with parents who are put off getting help after one bad experience. Please don’t let that happen. Your child has an illness that requires professional help. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this alone. Your child deserves more than that.

I know getting help isn’t always easy. In a previous post,  I’ve listed some of the ways you can push to get the right help for your child. I hope it helps.

Having a care plan and sticking to it

A key part of your child’s recovery is their care plan. This is a schedule, put together by your child’s mental health team, that your child has to follow in the early days of their illness.

In Nora’s case, her care plan consisted of carrying out basic tasks such as getting out of bed each day, getting herself dressed and eating a certain amount of food. If this seems extremely simple, it’s not. When someone is severely depressed, carrying out even the most basic tasks can seem too daunting.

Having a bespoke care plan was hugely important. It gave Nora – and me – a structure for getting through each day. Over time, it gave her confidence to believe she could carry out basic tasks that she’d thought were too difficult.

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Reading about other people’s experiences of depression

I read – and reread – Matt Haig’s brilliant Reasons to Stay Alive. I read blogs detailing people’s experiences of depression and mental illness. I learned as much as I could about Nora’s illness.

I knew almost nothing about depression before Nora fell ill. I’m still no expert but I’ve learned enough to – hopefully – support her as best I can.

The resources section of this blog lists all the books and online resources I found most useful.

Faith

I am not a religious person. When I talk about faith in this context I mean faith in my daughter. I never once, not even at her very worst, believed Nora wouldn’t get better.

This wasn’t always easy.

Several times, we were told by mental health professionals they had never encountered a child of Nora’s age with such severe symptoms. At one point, her CAMHS counsellor told me they were ‘flummoxed’.

It took over a month for CAMHS to put a care plan in place for Nora. They simply didn’t know how to treat her when she was first referred to them.

Yet somehow, through all of this, I always believed she would be well again.

Of course, I don’t know what the future holds. I’m not naïve. I know that depression may be part of her life forever. I know she may get sick again. If that happens, I will hold onto the faith I have now.

Because I believe in my daughter. I believe in her strength and her determination. More than anything, I believe she deserves to live an incredible life, with or without ongoing mental health issues.

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When your child takes anti-depressants

tabletsThere’s a widely accepted belief among many parents that giving anti-depressants to a child is ‘a very bad thing’. Before Nora fell ill, I was one of ‘those’ parents.

I believed that the medical profession routinely over-prescribed anti-depressants to children who ‘didn’t really need them’. I believed this on the basis of no real evidence. I believed it because other parents believed it. I believed it because I read opinion pieces in broadsheet newspapers about the damaging effects of proscribing anti-depressants to young people.

I believed it because I was incredibly ignorant about mental health problems and the devastating effects they can have on young people and their families.

The purpose of this post isn’t to debate the pros and cons of giving anti-depressants to young people. I’ve had my fair share of negative reactions from other parents who ‘don’t think it’s wise’ for my child (yep, my child not theirs) to be taking drugs that can help her get better again. Quite frankly, I’m tired of trying to explain to people that if Nora wasn’t taking anti-depressants, she would very possibly be dead.

If you’re a parent wondering whether or not anti-depressants are the right choice for you child, I can’t help you make that choice. But I can tell you this: I absolutely believe that anti-depressants saved my daughter’s life.

This post is for parents who made the same choice we did.

Based my experiences with Nora, here are the five things I wish I’d known earlier. If I had, it would have saved me a whole lot of heartache and far too many hours searching the internet for answers.

They take time to work

When Nora was first prescribed anti-depressants we had unrealistic expectations of how quickly they would work. We watched her, day after day, for any signs of improvement. For the longest time, nothing changed.

It doesn’t help that it took time to get her dosage right (see below), but the waiting really was tough.

Nora’s been taking anti-depressants for five months now. During that time, her recovery has been remarkable. She’s still not ‘better’, but she is significantly different from the mute, withdrawn, suicidal child she was a few short months ago.

I know that her recovery isn’t only down to the anti-depressants, but they’ve certainly helped.

So, if you and your child are at the start of your journey with anti-depressants, hang on in there. It takes time, but the wait really is worth it.

You may not get the dosage right first time

Because mental health is so complicated, and children’s brains are still developing, finding the right level of the right kind of anti-depressant for a child can take time.

Nora is taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) anti-depressant called Fluoxetine (commonly known as Prozac). We had to try the drug at three different levels before we saw any effects. Because the side effects are so horrible in kids, increasing the level of medication has to be done gradually.

Again, all of this takes time. Again, it’s worth hanging in if you can.

The side effects are horrible, but they pass quickly

One of the (very valid) reasons parents are reluctant to give anti-depressants to their children is because of the side effects. They are horrific.

Nora’s depression meant she was extremely suicidal and unable to eat. She tried to kill herself several times. She was self-harming. She lost so much weight we thought she might have be fed through a tube.

Two of the most common side effects of Fluoxetine in children are increased suicidal thoughts and nausea. If your child is already suicidal, and already struggling to eat enough food to survive, you really don’t want her taking something that’s going to make this worse.

Did we see any side effects? Yes. Nora threw up for several nights after she first started taking Fluoxetine. And she was extremely suicidal (although, if I’m honest, I couldn’t say whether this was because of the drugs or part of her general illness).

However, the side effects pass. In Nora’s case, they passed relatively quickly (I would say they had disappeared completely after three weeks).

They won’t ‘cure’ your child but they will help

I really wish I’d known this earlier. Somehow, I believed anti-depressants would miraculously ‘cure’ my daughter. I read other people’s experiences of taking anti-depressants. They spoke about waking one morning and feeling as if a cloud had lifted from them. I thought this was how it would be for Nora, but this wasn’t our experience.

Nora’s recovery was gradual. Day by day, we started to notice small improvements. Taken together, those improvements are dramatic. But they are still only part of her recovery.

The really key part from now on will be the work she does with her CAMHS counsellor, helping her to manage her feelings and build the resilience she needs to navigate her way through her teenage years.

When they start to work, it’s the best thing ever

This is why you have to hang in there when your child starts taking anti-depressants. For all the reasons listed above, it’s not easy. But it’s worth it.

My child was so very ill. She had stopped talking. She wanted to die. She had developed psycho-motor retardation, a condition that slows down your thought processes and body movements.

Today, she is engaged with the world again. She can fall asleep without needing me to be with her. She speaks and laughs and cracks jokes with her brother. She sees her friends. We go swimming in the sea. She is alive and embracing life.

All of this means more than anything. My girl is coming back to me.

We chose to give Nora anti-depressants, exactly as we would choose to give her life saving medication if she had cancer or any other illness. I am very glad we did.

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A mother’s love

I have just watched this deeply moving video and wanted to share it. This poor woman expresses the deep sadness and feelings of helplessness a parent feels when their child tells them they want to die.

Please watch this BBC video and share widely. Click here to see it.

Shelagh

 

Questions employers shouldn’t ask

The lovely people at Thrive Law asked me to blog about my experiences. Before Nora fell ill, I was a busy, working mum. Like all working parents, I struggled to balance the demands of working life and family life.

Since Nora’s illness, a lot has changed. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is how to handle people’s reactions when they learn about her mental health problems. I’ve also learned a lot about how to have sensible conversations with my employer about needing to take time off work to care for my daughter.

In my blog for Thrive Law, I talk about my employer’s reaction to my daughter’s illness. I list the three questions an employer should never ask about your child’s mental health problems.

These questions are:

When are you coming back?

When will the anti-depressants work?

What caused your child’s depression?

To find out why an employer should never ask these questions, visit my guest blog over at Thrive Law.

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Tips for parenting a depressed child

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I have never suffered from depression, or lived with someone who has. So, when Nora first fell ill, I wasn’t equipped to help her. I did my best, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way.

Over the last six months, I’ve learned a huge amount about mental illness in general, and depression in particular. Through trial and error, I have gained some understanding of the practical ways a parent can support a child who is suffering from depression.

Here are my top five tips for parenting a depressed child. I hope they help.

Stay calm

Supporting your depressed child is exhausting, time consuming and deeply distressing. When Nora first fell ill, I stupidly thought it might help if she knew how upset I was. As if this might, somehow, reverse the course of her illness and bring back the happy, confident girl she used to be.

I realise now how ridiculous this was. Depression isn’t something its sufferers can ‘control.’ It’s a real illness, that leaves you feeling empty, terrified and utterly helpless.

More than anything, a depressed child needs to feel safe and loved. They will not feel safe if you’re crying and falling apart. This will make them even more scared than they already are. They will not feel loved if that love comes with ‘conditions’ (ie, that your love is somehow connected to them ‘not being sick’).

Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide

I’ve already blogged about this. Talking openly about with your child about suicide is a terrifying prospect. Like many parents, I worried that doing so might ‘put thoughts’ into my child’s head.

This is a fallacy.

If your child is depressed and self-harming, then there is a very strong likelihood your child has – at one stage or another – also had suicidal thoughts. These thoughts will be extremely frightening for your child. They may feel they cannot speak to you about them for fear of upsetting you.

It will be a huge relief if they know they can talk openly with you about suicidal thoughts. So, don’t be afraid to ask your child this very simple question: ‘Have you had any suicidal thoughts?’

If they say no, leave if for now but keep a close eye on them. If they remain depressed and are still self-harming, ask them the same question again in a few days’ time.

You can tell them it’s very common for depressed people to have suicidal thoughts. You can tell them it might help them to talk about this. Let them know it’s okay for them to talk to you about what they are thinking. Let them know you want to understand how they’re feeling and what you can do to help.

Most importantly of all, remember this: In the UK, suicide accounts for 14% of deaths in 10 – 19 year olds. Young people can – and do – kill themselves.

The more you understand about what your child is thinking, the better able you are to keep them safe.

familyDon’t try to do this alone

As parents, we want to do everything we can to keep our children safe. We believe no one in the world is better placed than us to do this. Most of the time, we’re right to think this. But not when our child has a serious illness.

If your child has mental health issues, you need help. You need professional help from your doctor and mental health experts. And you need all the support you can get from friends and family.

There is no shame in admitting you cannot do this by yourself. You can’t, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to give your child the support they need.

The first thing you need to do is make an appointment with your family doctor. Tell your doctor your child is ill and needs help. Insist on a CAMHS referral.

Due to woefully inadequate funding of children and adolescent mental health services, you may or may not get seen by CAMHS. If CAMHS are unable to see you, don’t give up hope.

Take your child directly to the emergency unit of your local hospital. Tell the people there that you are worried about your child’s safety. Tell them you do not want to take your child home without a psychiatric assessment. Be as pushy as you have to be to get the help your child needs.

At the same time as you are pushing for medical help, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family. Taking care of a child with a mental illness is a very lonely experience. Most of your friends and family will have very little knowledge of mental health issues. But if your friends and family are anything like mine, that doesn’t matter.

They may not understand what you’re going through – and that’s really okay because how could they? – but they will be there for you. Tell them what’s happening. Explain your child’s illness to them. Ask for help. Keep asking for help. Your friends and family will want to help. So let them.

Trust the mental health experts

In an earlier blog, I spoke about the doctor we met who ‘didn’t believe’ in mental illness. I’ve also blogged about our negative experience with one CBT counsellor. These bad experiences are the exception. Almost every other medical professional we’ve met has been amazing.

Your child’s psychiatrist, mental health nurse and counsellor have all spent years studying young people’s mental health. While you are the person with expert knowledge about your child, they are the people with expert knowledge about your child’s illness.

It’s important you listen to their advice, particularly when it comes to choosing the right course of treatment for your child.

Remain hopeful

During the worst of my daughter’s illness, I never let go of the belief that she would get better. It was the single thing that kept me going. I was right to be hopeful.

Slowly, after six of the most harrowing months of my entire life, Nora is showing signs of recovery.  She has started speaking again, she can eat enough food to stop her losing any more weight. Most importantly of all, she has started to engage with life again. She still isn’t ‘better’ but she is definitely ‘getting better’.

Your child will get better too. Never let yourself stop believing this.

There will be days – many days – when you feel as if you cannot bear what is happening to your child. You can bear it. You must bear it. Now, more than any other time in your child’s life, they need you to be strong.

One of the things that helped me enormously was reading Matt Haig’s blog Reasons to stay alive.

For months I read this every day. I read it to myself, and I read it to Nora.

If you are feeling hopeless right now, I urge you to read it too.

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Ignorance is no excuse

hospitalIf you’re the parent of a child with severe depression, you quickly learn that you will spend time in and out of hospital. There will be occasions when either you or your child know that hospital is the only safe place to be right now.

Nights spent in hospital with your sick child are no fun. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a bed to sleep in. Otherwise it’s a chair beside your child’s bed. If your child is a suicide risk, you have to spend the night sleeping by the nurse’s station. Sorry, did I say sleeping? I meant ‘trying to get some sleep, despite the bright lights and the constant noise’.

After one of these nights, Nora and I were waiting to be seen by CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). We were exhausted. By now, Nora was very sick indeed. She was extremely suicidal, withdrawn and desperately in need of help.

Midway through the morning, a woman approached Nora’s bed and introduced herself as the ‘community paediatrician’. I had never met this woman before. Neither had Nora.

Here’s what happened next

Community Paediatrician (CP) shouts at Nora: ‘Hello, how are you this morning?’

When Nora doesn’t respond, CP looks at me: ‘Have you considered…?’ Her voice trails off as she whispers the final part of her question.

Assuming she’s going to suggest something helpful, I ask her to repeat her question.

She raises her voice, shouting again to make sure I hear this time: ‘Autism,’ she roars. ‘Have you considered your daughter might be autistic?’

Me: ‘Um… no actually. She’s under the care of a psychiatrist and her diagnosis is anxiety and depression.’

CP, holding her hand up to prevent me saying anything else: ‘It’s autism. I see this in young girls all the time. They do okay in primary school by pretending. But then they start secondary school and their strategies don’t work. Their autism becomes apparent. You need to get her screened for autism. I will speak to CAMHS about this.’

Me: ‘She’s been seeing a psychiatrist for two months. Wouldn’t her psychiatrist have mentioned it if she thought Nora was autistic?’

CP: ‘They always miss it. Me? I see this all the time. You need to get her screened for autism.’

I glance at Nora, and see she’s listening intently to this conversation. I want to say something. I want to tell her not to worry, I’m sure she isn’t autistic. But I can’t because, in my befuddled state, I think this person – who is a doctor, after all – must know what she’s talking about.

doctorWhen I look up, the doctor has already left. Nora and I are alone. Only we’re not. Because the nurses in this children’s ward are incredible. Without me realising it, one of the nurses – Sandy – has appeared. She takes one look at my face and calls for another nurse – Joyce – to come in.

Sandy: ‘Nora’s mum, you come with me. Joyce will stay here with Nora.’

Sandy takes me outside. We walk around the hospital grounds.

I am not making much sense. I keep saying things like: ‘I don’t understand. Can someone suddenly become autistic? That’s not how it works, is it? If she was autistic, wouldn’t I have realised it before now?’

All the while I’m muttering like this, my mind is going back over the last eleven years of Nora’s life, looking for signs my daughter is on the spectrum. I can’t find anything specific, but then I think maybe – to a greater or lesser degree – we’re all somewhere on the spectrum.

When I say this to Sandy, she smiles and says: ‘You’re absolutely right.’

‘But she has lots of friends,’ I say. ‘And she’s really socially aware. Too socially aware. That’s what got her into this mess in the first place. I mean, surely I would have guessed something was wrong?’

Sandy gives me a sympathetic hug and asks: ‘When was she first diagnosed with autism?’

Me: ‘Oh just now. Well, not diagnosed but the doctor thinks that’s what’s wrong with her.’

As I say this, for the first time I start to wonder how someone who has never met my daughter before could reach such a conclusion so quickly.

Meanwhile, Sandy takes one of my hands in hers, squeezes it and says: ‘Ah. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’d take what that doctor tells you with a pinch of salt. You see, she doesn’t believe in mental illness.’

She doesn’t believe in mental illness

I replay these words inside my head, looking for the joke. Then I realise, Sandy isn’t joking. The paediatrician – a medically trained doctor whose job it is to take care of sick children like my daughter – doesn’t believe in mental illness.

That doctor wasn’t speaking to me as a medical expert. Instead, she was choosing to share her uninformed, and unforgivably ignorant opinion on why some adolescent girls ‘appear’ to have mental health problems.

Now, you might be reading this and wondering why I’m sharing this story with you? Well, I’m NOT sharing it with you because I think a diagnosis of autism is ‘worse’ than one of severe depression. I don’t know what it’s like to have an autistic child, so I cannot make that comparison.

Nor do I think the doctor was wrong for wanting to explore autism as a possible cause of my daughter’s symptoms.

However…

This doctor had never met me or my daughter before. She had no right – none, whatsoever – to assume it was okay to discuss Nora’s health in front of her the way she did. One of the key things you learn when your child is depressed is the importance of creating a safe environment which reduces your child’s anxiety levels.

Telling a depressed child she quite likely has other health problems is not a very clever way of reducing her anxiety.

Whether they like it or not, doctors are part of a profession which treats all aspects of people’s health – mental, as well as physical. It is simply unforgivable to ‘choose’ not to believe in some illnesses.

Would we trust a doctor who ‘didn’t believe in cancer’? I don’t think so.

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Let’s talk about…suicide

lonely boyMy daughter was eleven years’ old the first time she told me she wanted to die. As she likes to remind me, I didn’t take her seriously.

‘Don’t think like that,’ I said.

By then, I already knew Nora was ill. Her extreme anxiety meant she was barely attending school any longer. I assumed her anxiety was school-related. When she wasn’t in school, Nora seemed okay. She was able to carry on with her out of school activities and seemed happy being with her friends. She was still engaged with life.

When she told me she wanted to die, I didn’t believe for one second that she meant it. Also, she was eleven. It simply never occurred to me that an eleven-year-old child might have suicidal thoughts.

I was wrong.

The last six months have been a journey of discovery about mental illness in general, and childhood depression in particular. I have read harrowing stories of childhood suicides. I have watched my own daughter try to kill herself more than once.

Too frequently, when children talk of suicide it’s seen as ‘a cry for help’. I’m sure it often is. Sometimes, however, when a child says they want to kill themselves they mean exactly that. Their existence at this time is so horrific all they can think of is ending it.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people in the UK. It accounts for 14% of deaths in 10 – 19-year olds.  Over half of children who commit suicide have a history of self-harm.

I’m not saying if your child is self-harming they are also considering suicide. I’m saying it’s a possibility. My daughter was eleven the first time she self-harmed. She was still eleven the first time she tried to kill herself.

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If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re a parent who’s worried about your child. Maybe your child is self-harming and you’re scared about what else they might do. Or perhaps your child has already expressed suicidal thoughts and you’re still reeling from the shock.

Whatever your personal circumstances, I started this blog to help other parents. So, for you, here are some things I’ve learned about what to do – and not do – when your child tells you they want to die.

Don’t think they’re too young

I genuinely had no idea children as young as eleven would consider killing themselves. It may not be common for eleven-year-olds to commit suicide, but it certainly happens. Between 2005 and 2014, 98 children aged between 10 and 14 killed themselves in the UK.

The support group Healing Untold Grief (HUGG) was set up by the parents of an eleven-year-old girl who killed herself.

If your child starts talking to you about suicide, listen. Never think, ‘oh you’re far too young to think like that.’

Don’t think ‘not my child’

Until Nora got sick, I lived in this bubble where I believed ‘bad things happened to other people’s children’.

Yes, I’d heard tragic stories of children who’d killed themselves. I simply didn’t believe that one of my own children might ever contemplate such a terrible, desperate act.

Don’t promise to keep secrets you can’t keep

Your child will be deeply ashamed and traumatised about their suicidal thoughts. When they finally work up the courage to tell you what they’re thinking, they may ask you not to tell anyone else.

This isn’t a promise you can keep, so don’t make it in the first place. Trust is important in any parent-child relationship. It’s crucial when you’re trying to support your child with their mental illness.

If you make a promise you can’t keep (and you cannot keep this a secret; you must get professional help), you’ll break that trust. If that happens, you won’t be able to help your child.

Do remain calm

This is difficult. When you realise your child has suicidal thoughts, you will feel shocked, upset and overwhelmed.

So, let me say this: suicidal thoughts are not the end of the world.

There are different ways of finding out your child has suicidal thoughts. They may tell you they want to die. You may know nothing about it until they actually try to kill themselves. I didn’t realise how suicidal Nora really was until she tried to cut her wrists.

I didn’t react well. I panicked, I got upset, I thought my world as I knew it had come crumbling down.

You know what? My world is still here. Nora is still here. And now, thanks to my increased awareness of her illness, we are able to talk openly about her suicidal thoughts and feelings.

I am able to remain calm when she tells me she is ‘feeling very suicidal today’. I know when she tells me this, she needs a hug. More than anything, she needs to feel safe. The best way I can let her know she is safe is by remaining calm and simply being there for her.

It’s not easy. None of this is easy. But knowing the right way to respond, and knowing that is helping your child, can be an enormous comfort.

Do discuss it openly

Yes, this is hard too. Heartbreakingly difficult, in fact. But you don’t really have a choice. Your child is suicidal. You need to understand what this means, and – crucially – what you can do to keep them safe.

You need to ask them questions. Lots of questions. This really is okay. I was scared – very scared – that asking questions would ‘put ideas into her head’. Nah. Those ideas are already there.

So, try to find out what methods your child is considering, and also if they’ve thought about when they might do something. Are they planning to cut their wrists or throw themselves in front of a train or try to hang themselves? Have they decided on a particular date (Christmas, Easter, birthday, new school term)?

I know this is deeply upsetting. But remember, knowledge is power. If you know what your child is thinking, you can do so much to prevent them going through with it. You can lock up knives and other sharp objects. You can hide prescription drugs. You can take away dressing gown cords and belts. You can lock upstairs windows.

Crucially, you will understand the moments when your child is most likely to try something. You will know the moments in the day (or week or month) when you need to be at your most vigilant.

I know you might do all these things and they may not be enough. But your actions might keep your child safe if – in that moment when everything gets too much – they are unable to hurt themselves because you’ve put measures in place to stop this happening.

handDo get help

If your child has suicidal thoughts, they need help. Your family needs help. Please do not make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone.

Make an emergency appointment with your GP. Insist on a CAMHS referral. If your GP can’t arrange this, or the waiting list for CAMHS is too long, take your child to the emergency unit at your local hospital. Insist on getting your child assessed by a mental health expert. Tell every doctor, nurse and mental health professional you speak to that you are worried about your child’s safety. Ask to be kept in overnight if you are worried you won’t be able to keep your child safe at home.

If you are at home and you think your child is in danger, dial 999 right away. Do not wait.

Most of all, when you are going through the worst of times, know that they will pass. Your child will get better. You will both wake up one day soon and this dreadful black cloud that has fallen over your life will have cleared.

In the meantime, dear parent, stay strong for your precious child.

I am not a mental health professional. This blog  is based on my own experiences as the mother of a severely depressed child. Reading it is no substitute for seeking professional help. If you are worried your child is having suicidal thoughts, you need to get help right away. 

Sometimes there is no why

face-1540486Depression is an illness. A terrible, debilitating, life threatening illness. It sucks all joy from your life. It leaves you anxious, afraid and empty.

When you are depressed, your mind won’t shut down. It is on a constant cycle of worrying. You worry about everything. You cannot stop worrying, no matter how hard you try.

Alongside the worrying, you have a persistent voice inside your head. This voice tells you there is no point to anything anymore. It tells you you’d be better off dead. It urges you, constantly, to kill yourself.

You cannot shut your mind down. You cannot shut the voice up. You try, but they are stronger than you are.

Every living moment is horror. Time slows down. Every second is a minute, every minute an hour. The days are endless periods of extended hell.

You see your reflection in the mirror but it doesn’t feel like you. It doesn’t feel like you because there is no you. Right now, you are empty; this empty feeling inside you is worse than anything. It’s worse than the never-ending anxiety and fear. It’s worse than that persistent voice shouting at you all the time.

Your body is empty and there’s a dark shadow in the centre of your brain. You want to stick your hands inside your head and drag that shadow out. But you can’t do that. You can’t do anything because you are useless and everyone would be better off if you weren’t here.

You cannot bear living like this because it’s the furthest thing from living. You want to die because anything is better than this. All you can think about is ending it, but when you try to do this you fail. You are angry with yourself for not being able to go through with it. You are angry with anyone close to you who has intervened and tried to stop you.

cloudsDepression is an illness.

Yet too often when we hear someone is suffering from depression, our first reaction is ‘why?’. It’s a normal response. We want to understand what’s caused someone to suffer like this. If we can understand, maybe we can take precautions to make sure we protect ourselves and our loved ones from suffering in the same way.

When someone has cancer, or appendicitis, or tonsillitis, or arthritis, or osteoporosis or any other physical illness our first response is rarely to ask what caused the condition.

There are many reasons someone can suffer from depression – environmental factors, a genetic predisposition, a chemical imbalance in the brain, or sheer bad luck. Whatever the reasons, the simple fact remains: depression is an illness. People get sick all the time. There is no reason for this. Bad things happen.

Sometimes, there is no why.

My child is depressed – is it my fault?

tabletsAs the parent of a severely depressed child, I applaud the growing awareness of mental health problems in young people. Knowledge is power, after all. The more parents know about mental health problems, the better equipped we are to intervene early.

Understanding the causes and symptoms of mental illness could – potentially – help us prevent problems happening in the first place.

I say ‘potentially’ because, of course, sometimes children get ill no matter what we do.

In today’s world of never-ending parenting advice, this is a hard message to swallow. We are constantly being bombarded with information on how to raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children. There are books, websites, radio and TV programmes devoted to this topic.

Everyone has an opinion

Everyone from politicians and celebrities to members of the Royal Family has an opinion on the state of young people’s mental health, the reasons for the increase in mental illnesses amongst children and adolescents, and the measures that can be taken to prevent this.

Researching this article, I did an internet search for ‘How to prevent childhood depression’. This yielded 121,000,000 results. I’ve looked through the top 5 results and you know what? There’s nothing that tells me how I could have stopped my daughter being diagnosed with severe depression.

Yes, there’s a lot of information on ‘signs to watch out for’. And yes, this is helpful; in the early days of Nora’s illness I found this sort of thing very helpful indeed.

But when I read the tips for ‘preventing’ childhood depression, without wanting to come across all defensive, I’m pretty sure we were already doing all the right things.

The top 2 websites on my internet search both inform me that ‘childhood depression can be prevented’. I’m sure, in some cases, that’s true.

But sometimes people get sick; no matter how desperately we try to stop that happening.

According to all the websites I checked out, the things you should do to ‘prevent’ your child from getting depressed are the things most sensible parents try to do anyway:

  • Minimise conflict in the home
  • Have a good relationship with your child
  • Be open and encourage your child to talk openly about their feelings
  • Help your child set realistic goals
  • Foster independence
  • Etc

Now, all of this is very good advice. I’m not for one moment suggesting we shouldn’t all try to be the best parents we can be.

I’m very aware of the damaging effects on children when they are raised in environments that are not conducive to their mental health and general wellbeing. Children need to feel loved. They need to feel that home is a safe place, where they can be themselves and talk about any problems or worries they have.

But ‘good parenting’ lists and ‘how to stop your child getting depressed’ lists haven’t helped me understand why my daughter became severely depressed. They certainly haven’t helped me identify how I could have prevented this happening.

So what could I have done?

The logical part of me knows I probably couldn’t have prevented Nora’s illness; that, sometimes, bad things just happen. But the emotional parent in me can’t help picking away at what happened, looking for reasons to blame myself.

I think about Nora’s rapid descent from a happy, confident, well-adjusted child to the very ill person she is today, and I know I made mistakes.

Of course, I got some things right. Mostly, the stuff that’s already on those ‘good parenting’ and ‘how to prevent your child getting depressed’ lists.

If you’re reading this, chances are – like me – you’re worrying about other stuff; the stuff that doesn’t appear on any generic list and is specific to your child, and your situation.

So, for you, here are  the top 3 mistakes I made during the early days of my daughter’s illness. I’m not saying you’ll make the same mistakes. I’m certainly not saying that if you avoid these mistakes, your child won’t get sick.

I’m sharing this because reading other parents’ experiences has helped me enormously. I’d like to be able to do the same.

Mistakes I made

The wrong counsellor

guiltyNora’s early symptoms were extreme anxiety. This manifested itself in severe meltdowns, panic attacks, problems sleeping and strong resistance to going to school.

A few years earlier, Nora had suffered mild anxiety, which was treated with a course of CBT counselling. After 6 sessions, the anxiety was under control and life continued as normal.

As soon as I realised the anxiety was starting up again, I took Nora to her GP, who referred her for more counselling.

The counsellor we’d had before wasn’t available this time. At first, I didn’t think this was a problem. I was wrong.

There was a complete disconnect between the counsellor and my child. She never ‘got’ Nora, or really understand the causes of Nora’s anxiety. She seemed completely unaware that, week by week, my daughter’s illness was getting worse.

Most worryingly of all, Nora’s counsellor seemed to forget things Nora had told her in earlier sessions.

In their first session together, Nora and her counsellor spoke at length about Nora’s self-harming. Midway through our fourth session, misunderstanding something Nora told her, the counsellor looked at me, smiled and said: ‘So she’s never self-harmed, then. That’s good.’

We never went back.

Looking back, I had concerns from the outset. I decided to put those to one side and give the counsellor a chance to do her job. This was a mistake.

Those sessions did huge harm. Nora went from having complete faith in mental health professionals to believing no one could help her.

The wrong decision about school

Nora’s anxiety began soon after she started secondary school. We (her father and I) knew school was the trigger but it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem was. She wasn’t being bullied (she was adamant on this point and conversations with the school backed this up) and all evidence seemed to indicate that Nora was, in fact, very popular.

Yes, she worried about shifting friendships and arguments within her peer group, but all of this seemed manageable. We knew friendship problems were causing Nora to worry, but we didn’t think the issue was bad enough for her to skip school.

This view was backed up by the counsellor, who was adamant Nora should continue going to school. It was an awful time. Nora was extremely upset each morning but we persisted in sending her in, telling ourselves the counsellor knew best.

Eventually, it was the school who decided Nora should stop going in. They said they could see how upsetting it was for her, and they didn’t believe it was doing her any good.

It was such a relief to stop forcing her to go in each morning. But I shouldn’t have let things get that far in the first place.

The wrong response to suicidal thoughts

Nora was eleven years’ old the first time she told me she wanted to die. By then, she had been ill for about two months. At this point in her illness, we had a diagnosis of anxiety with obsessive thoughts. I knew Nora was ill, but I really had no idea how ill she was.

When she told me that she wanted to die, I thought she was exaggerating. I told her ‘not to think like that’. I didn’t realise she meant it, or that telling me this was a symptom of how ill she really was.

It simply never occurred to me that someone so young could harbour serious thoughts of suicide. I didn’t take it seriously. I was wrong.

lonlinessYou’re not alone

I have no idea how things might have turned out for Nora if I’d made different choices early in her illness. Maybe she wouldn’t have got as sick as she eventually did. Or maybe it would have happened anyway. I really don’t know.

I do know that parents make mistakes all the time. But the mistakes that involve your child’s health and wellbeing are hard to live with.

I hope that other parents of sick children will read this and know they are not alone.

Reasons to be angry

cloudsWhen she was eleven years’ old, my daughter Nora* was diagnosed with severe depression.

Nora’s descent from a happy, confident and popular child to someone who is mute, withdrawn and suicidal has been tough. It’s tough for those of us who love her, but toughest of all for Nora. Depression is a terrible illness that sucks all joy from your life, leaving you in a dark, empty world without light or hope.

Author Marion Keyes describes depression as being trapped inside the boot of a car with two Rottweilers. This is not a place I want my daughter to be. But she’s there and my job now is to find a way to get her back.

When I started thinking about this blog, I was planning to write a month by month account of Nora’s illness. I find I’m not able to do that; it’s too personal. That story is Nora’s to tell if she ever wants to, not mine.

So why am I doing this? Because, my friends, I am angry.

give-1214474

In the UK today, we are failing our young people. The growing rate of mental health problems in children and adolescents is not being dealt with. The latest figures from the mental health charity Young Minds shows just how big – and growing – this problem is:

  • 1 in 10 children in the UK have a diagnosable mental health disorder; this doubles to one in five for young adults
  • almost 1 in 4 children and young people show some evidence of mental ill health (including anxiety and depression)
  • in 2015, suicide was the most common cause of death for boys and girls aged between 5 and 19.

Yet 3 in 4 (yes, that’s right: 3 in 4) children with a diagnosable mental health disorder do not get access to the support they need.

A mere 0.7% of the NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health; it’s no wonder so many children are not getting the help they need.

My daughter is being treated by the NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (commonly known as CAMHS). The people looking after her are brilliant. But getting seen by CAMHS isn’t easy.

If Nora ‘only’ had anger issues or anxiety, was ‘only’ self-harming, or ‘only’ had social anxiety which prevented her from going to school or having any sort of normal life, CAMHS in my part of the UK wouldn’t be able to treat her. They’re only able to take on the most serious cases.

I say ‘in my part of the UK’ because access to CAMHS services is a postcode lottery. In some areas of the UK, 75% of children and adolescents referred to CAMHS are not allocated a service.

For those lucky few who do get allocated a service, the average waiting time between referral and assessment ranges from just a week in some areas to more than 26 weeks in others. The average waiting time is almost 2 months.

Over the last few months, I’ve met a lot of parents who are struggling to get the help and support their sick child desperately needs. Understandably, these parents blame CAMHS for not being able to help them. I’d probably do the same if I was in their shoes.

But the problem isn’t the people working for CAMHS. They do a great job, but they’re not miracle workers. Without adequate funding and resources, they simply cannot support the growing number of children and adolescents being referred to them.

Our young people deserve better. The dedicated, caring people working in children and adolescent mental health deserve better. They are saving young people’s lives: the most important job there is.

I am new to the world of mental health activism. I know there are lots of people and organisations who’ve spent years fighting for greater awareness of, and more funding for, mental health illness.

I am proud to join that band of brave warriors.

More information

The resources section of this site has links to mental health charities and other resources I’ve found useful.

You can read more about Nora and her illness here.

 

* not her real name