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.

empty road

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. 

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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