New year, new beginnings

new yearWe recently said goodbye to Nora’s CAMHS* counsellor. This wonderful woman first met us when Nora was at her worst.

She was no longer speaking, had stopped eating and wasn’t able to do many of the normal day to day tasks most of us take for granted. She was self-harming and suicidal. She had been hospitalised on several occasions, and was assessed by CAMHS every time she ended up in hospital.

Despite the well-documented stories of how difficult it can be to access children’s mental health services, this wasn’t our experience. From the outset, CAMHS were available and willing to help Nora.

However, as we were already paying for Nora to be treated privately, we had to make a choice: stay with the private service or move to CAMHS. Initially, we chose to stay within the private sector.

ambulance.jpgWhat changed our mind? A number of factors, including an afternoon of confusion following one of Nora’s terrible ‘meltdowns’. Normally, I was able to manage these episodes. On this day, things got so bad I ended up dialling emergency services, who sent an ambulance to the house. The paramedics immediately decided that Nora needed to be hospitalised. There was just one problem…

Because Nora was being treated privately, the paramedics didn’t know what hospital Nora should be taken to. They called our nearest NHS hospital, who told them Nora needed to be taken to the private hospital where she was being treated as an outpatient. But when I called the private hospital, they told me they couldn’t see her as it was an emergency and they didn’t deal with emergencies.

Several phone calls later, we ended up at an NHS hospital in a nearby town. We stayed there for several nights, where Nora was – once more – assessed by CAMHS. It was at this point that we decided to switch from the private sector to the NHS.

In retrospect, I’m pretty sure this decision saved Nora’s life.

The care we’ve had under CAMHS has been second-to-none. During the worst of Nora’s illness, we had mental health workers calling to our house daily, providing much-needed support. There were people I could call, twenty-four hours a day, when I was worried about my daughter. We had a team of caring, dedicated people, all doing their best to keep my daughter alive.

This was very different to the private sector where I had one phone number for one psychiatrist. In all the time we were under her care, she never once returned any of my phone calls.

Since that first meeting with our CAMHS counsellor, Nora’s recovery has been remarkable. This is largely thanks to her dedicated CAMHS carers, who do one of the most important jobs there is.

Lack of access to children’s mental health services has been widely document. I’ve blogged about it here previously. Understandably, parents who cannot get help for their children feel angry and frustrated.

These parents are right to be angry. In the UK today, three in four children with a diagnosable mental health disorder do not get access to the support they need. For those lucky few who do get allocated a service, the average waiting time is almost two months (and far longer in some parts of the country).

But we can’t blame CAMHS workers for the woeful state of children’s mental health services. Instead, the blame lies with the people making decisions around how public funds should be allocated.

Today in the UK, only 0.7% of the NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health. Without adequate funding and resources, CAMHS are simply unable to support the growing number of children and adolescents being referred to them.

young minds.jpgIf you care about children’s mental health, and you agree our government needs to do more to support essential mental health services, now is the time to act. Lobby your local MP or sign the Young Minds’ petition for a new era for young people’s mental health.

Let’s not stop telling our elected politicians they need to do more to prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of future generations.

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*CAMHS stands for Children and Adolescent Mental Health services

 

 

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.

family

Five things I’ve learned

lonely boyI’ve been slightly overwhelmed recently by the number of people I’ve met – online and in person – caring for someone with mental health problems.

These conversations have made me realise that I know quite a bit more about anxiety and depression than I did nine months ago, when Nora first became ill.

So, today’s blog looks at five important things I’ve learned about supporting a child with anxiety or depression.

Don’t wait to get help

This may seem obvious, but it’s not always. As parents, our first instinct  is to protect our children. We don’t want them to be ill.

Sometimes, when they start self-harming, stop eating or tell you they want to die, we don’t take this seriously. We tell them to stop self-harming. We sanction them for not eating properly. We tell them they don’t really want to die.

We try to address the problem with logic. But mental health problems aren’t logical.

Self-harming, suicidal thoughts, refusing to go to school, problems eating and sleeping… these are all signs your child needs help.

Educate yourself

This is important. No matter what support you’re getting from CAMHS or other mental health services, you – and you alone – will be the person spending most time with your sick child.

When Nora first fell ill, I believed I could ‘fix’ her through the sheer strength of my love and my determination that she would be well again. I approached her illness with the logical, problem-solving approach I use to tackle most of life’s problems.

Of course, unconditional love is hugely important. Your child needs to know you love them, no matter what. But they also need to know that you understand enough about their illness to help them get them through this dark and difficult time.

The more you learn about your child’s condition, the better placed you’ll be to give them the help they need.

If you’re unsure where to start, take a look at the website for mental health charity Young Minds. They have a wealth of resources, as well as a Parents Helpline you can call for help and advice.

You can also check out the resources section of this blog  for books and online material I’ve found most useful.

tabletsAnti-depressants aren’t always ‘a bad thing’

Nora has been taking Fluoxetine for six months now. She’ll need to continue taking the medication for a further six months, at least. Anti-depressants saved Nora’s life. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it.

I know that anti-depressants aren’t right for everyone. Finding the right medication, at the right dosage, takes time. And all the time you’re playing around with different levels and types of medication, you are acutely aware that you’re giving your child a drug that has horrific side effects.

In our case, persistence paid off. Once we got the medication right, Nora’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous.

Of course, medication alone isn’t enough. In Nora’s case, her recovery is down to a combination of medication, a counsellor who understands her complex issues, and a loving, supportive family.

If a psychiatrist prescribes anti-depressants for your child, that’s because they believe medication is your child’s best hope of recovery right now. You should listen to what the psychiatrist is telling you. It may be, that you try medication and find it doesn’t work. On the other hand, it might just save your child’s life.

Recovery takes time

Nora had been taking anti-depressants for about eight weeks before we saw the first early signs of improvement. At first, the changes were tiny. She started responding when I hugged her, putting her arms on mine for a moment before dropping them again. She started sleeping again. And then, one morning, a miracle happened – she got out of bed and came downstairs without anyone helping her.

Of course, the next morning – and others after that – she needed help again. But there were also many more mornings when she was able to do it alone. And since then, things have continued to improve.

But…

It’s taken nine months to get this far, and she’s still not ‘better’. She hasn’t gone back to school, she still has terrible meltdowns on a regular basis, and she struggles to do many of the day to day tasks she used to take for granted.

The key thing, however, is this: she’s getting better. Your child will too. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight.

It’s no one’s ‘fault’ your child is ill

We all know that mental illness can be triggered by traumatic events in a person’s life. But often people fall ill and there’s no obvious reason why.

If you’ve been a relatively okay parent, if your child’s life up to this point has been pretty uneventful, then the chances are this illness would have happened to them sooner or later.

It’s hard not to blame yourself when your child’s behaviour suddenly changes. Sometimes, it’s also hard not to blame your child.

The line between ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘behaviour caused by anxiety or depression’ is blurred, at best. How can parents know a child’s bad behaviour is deliberate and when it’s not? The simple answer is, we can’t.

But, we should remember this: when a child has anxiety or depression, they’re often unable to help the way they’re behaving.

It’s not your fault your child is ill. It’s not your fault their behaviour is worrying and disruptive. And it’s not their fault, either.

lonliness

 

 

Mental health and education

Rant alert: if you’d rather not listen to me having a good old rant, stop reading now.

classroomWhen your child is too ill to go to school, your local authority is obliged to offer you alternative access to education. In Nora’s case, she gets ten hours of online learning each week, and two one-to-one hour-long sessions with a tutor .

Ten hours of online learning probably doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a challenge for Nora. She is severely dyslexic so trying to concentrate on a screen-based lesson for two consecutive hours is exhausting. And she is still recovering from a debilitating illness, which means she gets tired very easily.

The pressure of having to log on for two hours a day has added to her general anxiety. Clearly, this isn’t ideal. Her CAMHS counsellor has told us that putting too much pressure on Nora at this stage could be detrimental to her recovery.

So, I contacted the learning provider. Our conversation went like this:

Learning Provider (LP): She really should try to log on to every class.

Me: Well, CAMHS have strongly advised this isn’t a good idea and I need to ease her back into learning slowly.

LP (slightly dismissive): Oh, CAMHS always say that.

Me: Really? Why?

LP: They only care about the child’s mental health.

Me: Um…

That was yesterday. I’m still speechless. Surely Nora’s mental health is all that matters?

To add insult to injury, I’ve since found out that Nora’s usual English class has been cancelled for the next two weeks and she will have to join an older class. I only realised this when we tried to access her usual class and it wasn’t available. When I questioned why this was, the provider told me that Nora’s English teacher is on jury service so Nora’s class will have to join an older class for the next two weeks.

This morning, I emailed the provider to ask how it will benefit Nora to spend two weeks in a class designed for older students, discussing a book she’s never read. So far, I haven’t had a reply.

The whole experience has left me pretty dispirited. It’s made me question whether the alternative support we’re getting is less about Nora’s education and more about ticking boxes.

Is the number of times Nora logs on to an online class – even one not aimed at her age or ability – really more important than her mental health? Apparently some people think it is.

End of rant.

tick box