This week, after a decade of false starts and dead ends, we were able to evolve the beginning of a long term plan of mental health care and support for a kind, brilliant young person – one of my three sons.
After a challenging decade, a person of great compassion has emerged who will, I believe, go forward with all he has been through — and may continue to go through — and be able to help and support others through the study and work he wants to do. Let me tell you how we got to this point.
We all struggle with our emotions, because emotions and feelings, are unwieldy things. Yet there is a line which is crossed: from being an emotionally labile individual to one who is suffering because of the way thoughts and concomitant feelings play out. In the case of my son, he was not sleeping, was extremely anxious, withdrawn, of persistent low mood, and clearly troubled.
Now we must consider whether the child needs additional help. Is a mental health problem in play? Do we look at whether the child has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), or if specific learning difficulties (SLD) are making school stressful? Perhaps all of these things are here?
Progress towards finding help has been a tortuous one, because the issue is not only the paucity of resources in mental health care (and related areas) for children and young people, but also a ragged determination by some to ignore grey areas, because of bias, or simply poor listening skills.
To get any support at all, we pooled resources, used helplines and advocated. Still, full disclosure: after 10 years, we accessed private healthcare for ASD assessment, a clinical psychologist and a consultant psychiatrist. I feel guilty about this, and nervous about the cost, but it couldn’t go on any longer.
Over the decade, we sought help from the school, council and GP practice. We accessed Child and Adolescent Mental Health Support (CAMHS) after an 18 month wait, and were discharged after three visits on the basis that I had the skills to provide appropriate care. We paid for an educational psychologist because the school had raised SLD, but we could not access county support or an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) , because things were bad, but not bad enough.
GP visits were — in my view — kind but perfunctory. In the darkest times, calls to urgent care meant I had to assess first whether there was immediate danger to him or to me. My brave young man had long patches of school refusal, terrible insomnia and sometimes even speaking was a struggle. I would have chewed off my own arm to remove this distress from my child.
Language is a powerful thing — salving or destructive to a family under stress. People said things — sometimes directly to my son — which seemed intended to shame and blame, but offered no real solution. Of course, some were ill-conceived, but well meant: the impact is still shattering, undoing good work done by others.
Things like: “Perhaps he’s just cowed by your big personality”, “If he cannot handle school, how will he handle university or hold down a job?” or, “Students with much worse problems seem to manage, why can’t he?”
May I make the case for two things? First, that we campaign to improve resources and never stop. Then, we seek to improve and monitor training in mental health awareness for school staff, to include sensitivity in communication. We should think not only about how we speak to a child or young person in distress, but, also, how we speak to their family.
Speaking dismissively to parents results in rictus sobs in the school car park. Instead, say to a parent: “Please help me to learn more.”
Furthermore, admit doubt and bafflement, both of which show intellect and compassion. There is nothing wrong with being tentative and unsure: binary thinking is usually unhelpful. Let us all go forward together, making the best job we can of healing and empowering our young.
Anna Vaught is a novelist and short fiction writer, poet, editor, copy editor, proofreader, English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people.