I just want to be happy…

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Last night my daughter tried to kill herself. This is not a sentence that trips lightly off the tongue. It’s hard to admit your child is so desperate they want to die. But it’s not the first time I’ve had to say these words. It may not be the last, either.

This time is particularly difficult, because she’s making such remarkable progress. In six, joy-filled weeks, we have seen our daughter emerge from the iron grip of her crippling depression and start to embrace life again.

But we’ve always known her recovery wasn’t going to be straight-forward. Recovering from depression is often described as ‘one step forward, one step backwards’. This is hard, because each step forward brings the promise that, one day, this terrible illness will be a distant memory. The steps back are cruel reminders that you’re still a long way from ‘better’.

‘I just want to be happy,’ Nora said, as I eased the knife from her hand last night. The knife she had taken from the dishwasher when she sneaked downstairs, looking for something she could use to kill herself.

Nora will be happy again. She’s already had many precious moments of happiness over the last six weeks. There are many more to come.

There’s a particular challenge in helping young people with depression. Their brains are not fully developed yet. They haven’t had the same breadth and depth of life experiences as adults. A combination of these factors can make them more prone to suicidal thoughts and tendencies than older people suffering from depression.

When a depressed adolescent is having a bad day, they are simply unable to imagine a time when their life won’t be plagued by this illness.

They want to be happy. But the illness means that’s not possible. The illness makes them believe they’ll never be happy again. And they cannot imagine having to keep on living a life without joy.

So…what can a parent do?

You keep going

You accept your sick child will have bad days, alongside the good. You let them know this isn’t their fault.

You love them, unconditionally, and do all you can to keep them safe

Let them know you’re with them, through the bad times as well as the good. Let them know they can talk to you, share their worries with you and you will listen.

You never forget this is harder for them

This is important. It’s too easy to feel sorry for yourself, to ask yourself ‘why me?’ or – worst of all – to try to blame your child for their illness.

If you find yourself thinking this way, stop.

Your child is suffering and they need you to be strong. They need you to be there for them, no matter how bad things get.

And they need you to never, ever stop believing you’ll get through this – together.

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Living for the moment

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All parents want our children to be healthy, happy and safe. We want this so much, we fool ourselves into believing we can make this possible. We send them to the best schools (whether it’s state or private, we still do our best to find the ‘best’ one for our child), we encourage them to take on hobbies and activities, we play games with them, help them with their homework, ensure they have regular check-ups with doctors and dentists. In short, we put a huge amount of effort into trying to keep our children out of harm’s way.

The grim truth, however, is this: sometimes all that work and love and devotion simply isn’t enough. Sometimes, bad things happen.

When your child is severely depressed, they are neither happy nor healthy. They are not safe from harm. They are suffering from a terrible, debilitating illness that renders them unable to engage with life in any meaningful way. Their thoughts are so dark, their anxiety and fear so overwhelming, that all they can think of is death. They want to die because anything is better than living like this.

When your child is this ill like this, the only thing you want is for them to be ‘better’ again. The problem with mental illness is that you cannot predict when – or if – this will happen.

Nora was so ill we knew her recovery would take time. We also knew it wouldn’t be a straight forward process. Recovery from depression is commonly described as ‘two steps forward, one step backwards’. As Nora gradually showed signs of improvement, we knew to expect good days and not so good days.

We also knew that this illness may forever be a part of who she is. Nora may ‘recover’ from this episode but we live with the knowledge that it could strike again.

What do you do when faced with this uncertainty?

You let go. You accept that the future is out of your control. You accept that your child’s path through life may be different to the one you’d hoped for her. You try not to worry about the fact she’s not at school now and may never go back to school in the future. You stop obsessing over how her illness will affect her friendships, her ability to deal with challenges in later life, or what her different future might look like.

You appreciate every precious moment when she’s happy. You remember – always – that you are lucky. She is still here. You can talk to her, laugh with her, buy clothes with her and see her smile again.

You focus on the here and now, appreciating every good day for what it is, without worrying about what tomorrow may bring.

You live life in the present. And you are more grateful than you ever believed possible for the many moments of joy you experience every single day your child is still here.

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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 ouR 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