Make a real difference this Christmas

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

Four months ago today, I wrote the Nora’s story page of this site.

Re-reading this now, it seems extraordinary to think how ill Nora was, and how rapidly she is recovering.

Four months ago, my beautiful daughter was in the grip of a crippling depression. She had stopped speaking (she was completely mute for several months), she was unable to get out of bed or get dressed without help, and she had lost so much weight we thought she’d have to be fed through a tube.

Nora’s anguish was so unbearable she didn’t want to continue living. More than once, she was admitted to hospital after serious suicide attempts.

It was a terrible time for our family but, even during the worst of it, we never stopped believing Nora would get better.

Four months on, and Nora’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. She is no longer suicidal or self-harming. The symptoms of her psycho-motor retardation are gone. She is speaking again, having fun and engaging with life.

Since I started this blog, I’ve met so many parents taking care of children with mental health problems. Parents, like me, who are struggling to deal with the challenges of supporting a child with a mental illness. Parents who desperately need help that simply isn’t available.

It’s no secret that the lack of resourcing and funding for children’s mental health in the UK is disgraceful. This is something I’ve blogged about previously, and it’s a topic I’m sure I’ll come back to again.

The problem isn’t just with children’s mental health, either. One in four people in the UK are reportedly suffering from some form of mental illness. Yet, all too often, these people are not getting the help they need.

It’s left to mental health charities to fill the gaps in mental health provision. Yet these charities, too, are stretched to their limits.

That’s why I am asking all readers of this blog to support this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity appeal, which is raising much-needed funds for three mental health charities:

  • Changing Faces – which provides advice and support for people with a visible difference through counselling, networks and skin camouflage services.
  • Young Minds – a charity that offers a vital lifeline to thousands of parents and carers to prevent young people from coming to harm.
  • The Fire Fighters charity – which offers psychological support to firefighters in the wake of major incidents.

You may not have suffered mental health problems yourself, but I guarantee you know someone who has. Mental health charities offer an essential service to families and individuals who desperately need help.

Please help these charities to carry on doing the great work they do.

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What does ‘better’ look like?

girl on beachWhen people ask how Nora is doing, I reply that she’s not ‘better’, but she’s ‘getting better’. I suspect she will be ‘getting better’ for the rest of her life. Why? Because mental illness isn’t something that goes away and never comes back.

For Nora, and for those who love her, the threat of another depressive episode will be ever-present. Because she was so ill, at such a young age, my daughter will always be vulnerable to mental health problems.

That’s not to say her recovery hasn’t been remarkable. Less than five months ago, I described the symptoms of her illness under the Nora’s story section of this site. When I think back to those terrible months, I know we’re lucky that she has progressed so far in such a short time.

I remember the stages of Nora’s recovery as a series of first. The first time she spoke again. The first time she was able to get out of bed and come down stairs without help. The first time she wanted to listen to music (something she has always loved and which stopped completely during the worst of her illness). The first time she smiled.

So many of these moments brought tears of joy. None more so than the afternoon Nora decided to go into school to visit her friends.

Before her illness, Nora had been a popular, fun loving girl with a wide circle of friends. When she became ill, she isolated herself from all her friends. She felt so terrible, she simply didn’t want to be with anyone.

That afternoon, we drove to the school, got out of the car and waited at the gates for Nora’s friends to emerge. Nora was nervous. I was petrified, worrying what it would do to her if she found this all too much and it had a negative impact on her recovery.

As it turned out, neither of us needed to worry. A few minutes after the final bell rang, Nora’s friends started coming out. One or two of them saw Nora waiting for them and screamed her name. The others looked around to see what the fuss was about and, within seconds, Nora disappeared into a group of girls who were all hugging her, shouting over each other to tell her their news, and bringing her right back into their midst.

Nora still has bad moments and days that are worse than others. When things are tough, I remember that afternoon in the sunshine – watching Nora surrounded by her friends, laughing and smiling and enjoying the simple pleasure of catching up with people she loves.

And I tell myself there are many more of those moments to come.

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Causes of mental illness?

depressed girlIt’s almost a year since Nora’s illness started to manifest itself. Since then, many people – some who’ve never met my daughter – have offered their opinions on what might have ‘caused’ her catastrophic mental breakdown.

I’ve blogged before about people’s need to find reasons for mental illness. The problem is, mental health is a complicated business and trying to identify the causes of mental health problems is a tricky business.

Having lived through her illness with Nora, I’d like to think I’m better placed than most to understand why she became so terrible ill. I know we may never fully understand what triggered her illness, but we understand a hell of a lot more than we did a year ago.

I believe Nora’s illness was caused by a combination of:

  • Escalating anxiety, triggered by several factors including undiagnosed dyslexia and high emotional intelligence which makes her overly sensitive to other people’s feelings
  • Hormones
  • The challenges all young people face finding quiet moments in a world that never switches off
  • A genetic predisposition to mental illness

All too often, I’ve seen people wriggle uncomfortably when I mention this last one – a genetic predisposition. People don’t like to think of mental illness as something that can’t be ‘controlled’, but the truth is, mental illness – like all other illnesses – can strike anyone, at any time.

Yes, we can adopt ways of living that can build resilience and reduce our vulnerability to mental health problems, but the best efforts in the world won’t always make us immune.

In Nora’s case, she was a confident, happy, popular girl before she fell ill. She wasn’t being bullied, she wasn’t being socially excluded and – I’d like to think – she was part of a loving family.

But like I said, it’s complicated. Last week in the supermarket, a woman I barely knew told me my daughter’s illness was caused by a combination of Wifi signals in the air and the additives in processed food. I disagreed with her at the time, but what do I know? Maybe she’s onto something…

wifiSo, in the spirit of openness and sharing, here are some of the ‘reasons’ well-meaning people have put forward over the last year to ‘explain’ my daughter’s illness:

  • Wifi signals
  • Cyber bulling
  • Other forms of bullying
  • Lack of exercise (Nora has always been fit and active but, again, what do I know?)
  • Food allergies/intolerances
  • Social media
  • Undiagnosed autism

social mediaBefore I finish, a note on social media. All of us – adults and children – struggle to find peace in today’s world. The constant access to everything – emails, social media, internet – is exhausting.

As a society, we simply aren’t doing enough to help our children navigate this new world they’re growing up in. We need to find ways to help children switch off and have down time. However, to make a sweeping statement that ‘social media causes mental illness’ is over simplifying a far more complicated situation.

In our house – as a direct result of Nora’s illness – we have started switching off our Wifi for two hours every night, and no one is allowed any screen time, either, during these two hours. Scary, huh?

I don’t know if this will help my kids find moments of silence in today’s busy world, but I hope it might do.

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