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

Nora’s story

black and white woman girl sitting
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Six months before her twelfth birthday, my daughter Nora (not her real name) started suffering from anxiety.

Over the course of a few months, the anxiety got worse (with terrifying speed, despite counselling and medication). Nora became severely depressed.

Our lives changed completely as we struggled to deal with what was happening to our family.

Before she fell ill, Nora was a happy, confident, funny, cheeky girl with lots of friends. By the time her birthday came around, Nora’s depression was so bad she no longer spoke, she was unable to get out of bed or get herself dressed without help. She barely ate and had lost so much weight we thought she’d have to be fed through a tube. She was self-harming and extremely suicidal. She had to be hospitalised more than once.

Nora also developed ‘psychomotor retardation’,  a condition that slows down your thought processes and body movements. It is, apparently, commonly seen in people with major depression. Believe me when I tell you it isn’t something you ever want to witness in your own child.

Several times a day, Nora had horrific meltdowns, when the weight of what she was enduring simply became too much to bear. These meltdowns were the only time she spoke, repeating the same three sentences over and over:

Please let me die.

I’m can’t do this; it’s too hard.

Make it stop; please, make it stop.

We are a family of four: mum, dad, Nora and her older brother. When Nora became ill and I realised we may lose her, all I could think of was that number. We are four – a square not a triangle. If there’s no Nora, who are we? I still haven’t worked that out; I hope I never have to.

I’ve gone from being a busy, working mother to full time carer. I don’t regret giving up my job. I don’t regret a single thing if it means I can get my girl better again.

Parenting a sick child is never easy. Parenting a child with a mental health illness comes with its own peculiar set of issues. It can feel lonely and overwhelming.

I started this blog because I believe it’s important we talk honestly about mental health. Reading other parents’ experiences has helped me enormously. If I can do the same for someone else, that will mean something.

At the time of writing this, Nora is still not speaking, has constant thoughts of suicide, and remains severely depressed. On the positive side, we have seen some improvements. She is eating more, and she has started to have days that are better than others. Of course, even these good days are very far removed from the girl she once was and the life she once had.

And yet…we are 100% optimistic that Nora will make a full recovery. She is an amazing girl and, more than anything, I want her to have the amazing life she so deserves to have. As part of a family of four, not three.

This blog is dedicated to her.

adult art conceptual dark
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