So picture this: you’re lying on a hospital gurney – cold, scared and confused.
You look around, desperately trying to decipher what you can, as the memories slowly start to trickle back. The ceiling lights are blinding as your vision starts to sharpen, faces which had blurred into one begin to separate – All at once, you know where you are. As reality sets in, you’re met with an uneasy mix of sweet relief, yet bitter disappointment – you have tried to take your own life… but it hasn’t worked.
Any dash of relief, born from the thought that even though your attempt has failed perhaps now you’ll at least get the help you need, is short lived. Out of nowhere, you feel the clothes being tugged from your body. Someone speaks firmly as you try to resist, you want to yell ‘no’ but through the weakness your mouth just won’t form the words. In your confusion, you are convinced that you’re being attacked – you feel the warmth of hot breath of your cheek, a brush of coarse hair on your forehead, arms reaching over you…words aren’t an option so all you can do is push. You push away the hands as a figure tries desperately to secure the alien-like device to your chest.
Where am I? What’s happening?
Why isn’t anyone helping me?
The memories come flooding back once again – memories of all those times you couldn’t fight back, of when you were trapped, terrified and alone – you know this feeling all too well now. These are the memories you were trying so desperately hard to escape.
Mercifully, there’s a sigh. The hands leave your body, and whoever it was exits the room, leaving you terrified and consumed by your own destructive thoughts. But who was the perceived danger this time…? Who was the “attacker”? Well as it turns out, she was a nurse – she had tried to administer an ECG with no warning whatsoever.
The real danger here is that my story is all too common – sadly, this is the reality for not only me, but for hundreds of young people across the UK. Last year, I was admitted to hospital after taking an overdose at the day centre I was attending. Due to the strength and amount of what I had taken, I was whisked away in an ambulance, drifting in and out of consciousness and wracked with panic. When we finally arrived, instead of receiving care or reassurance from staff, I was met by hostility and force. Despite being visibly confused and distressed, the nurse in question didn’t provide even the bare minimum of a hello, let alone any kind explanation or warning of the test she was about to carry out.
As someone who struggles with severe C-PTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder), the prospect of feeling trapped or out of control is pretty much a nightmare come true. Hospital is supposed to be a place we are able to feel safe, yet unfortunately for me I was left feeling even worse than when I came in. In my state of semi-consciousness, how was I supposed to know that this touch was well intentioned?
Now I get it, I really do. A&E is overcrowded and understaffed – there’s no doubt that nursing staff are working their fingers to the bone caring for each and every patient who walks through those doors. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing and dedicated professionals out there, and this isn’t me just tarring them all with the same brush. Most likely, after a long hard shift they took one look at me, a teenager who had essentially done this to herself, and thought: smashing. Here we go again.
Perhaps this experience wouldn’t have bothered me so much if this weren’t the type of thing I hear about on an almost daily basis. As the owner of an online peer-to-peer support group and Facebook page for young people who deal with mental illness (which both go by the name of ‘A Penny for your Thoughts’ – I know, shameless self promo… but go like and share if you’re feeling lovely!) I unfortunately get to hear about this stuff quite frequently. I cant even count the number of young people who’ve dismissed our suggestions of attending A&E, purely because they’ve either been turned away in the past (sometimes even though they’ve actively suicidal), or simply haven’t been taken seriously by parents or professionals. Many even report being sent home feeling worse, and more at risk. There seems to be this assumption that many teenagers who present at A&E are simply ‘attention seeking’, with many of us being labelled as “timewasters” (as it was so delicately put to another young person who was kind enough to share her experience with me) – I do understand that A&E is packed at the best of times, but is it really necessary to put a vulnerable young person in the same category as a drunk rocking up on a Saturday night bender?
An awful lot of young people I’ve spoken to who struggle with mental illness also feel not only demeaned and belittled, but forgotten about and ignored.
I have to second this – the night they admitted me following my overdose, I was left unattended long enough to rip the IV out of my arm, completely soaking my hospital gown with saline, which left me shivering and freezing cold. It wasn’t until I started sobbing at the prospect of having wet myself, that anyone took any notice and came to help. They then wheeled me to the ACU, where I was left for a further 9 hours – to put it in perspective, that was enough time for the ward to go through 3 separate shift changes. The room we were given was cold and dark, with only a temporary bed and no kind of blanket to lie on. Very occasionally, a doctor would appear, ask me the odd question – but by this point I was so out of it I could barely understand nor answer – they’d soon give up when they saw I couldn’t give an immediate or detailed response anyway. Not one person made a concerted effort to try and talk to me that night – to find out how I was feeling, why I had made such a drastic decision or even how much I had actually taken (which in turn lead to an error in my notes – upon discharge I noticed the doctor had recorded me having taken half the amount I actually had, which meant yet another trip to A&E the next day). I may not have been alert enough to hold an intelligent conversation, but I DO recall feeling frightened and abandoned – my poor dad had to keep reassuring me they weren’t just leaving me to die, even though – as he’s recently informed me – he was never actually sure.
The A&E staff even managed to actually lose me as a patient (twice), both in the actual building and on the system. This was because there was great debate over where I should be put – I was too old for the children’s ward, but too young for the adult… each ward repeatedly passed me onto the other. It was as if no one wanted to get ‘stuck’ with me – I was nothing more than a problem to be solved, a case number being tossed back and forth. Had my dad not finally lost his rag, I’m not sure where I would have ended up – As a young person, I didn’t feel In the slightest bit valued, let alone included or heard…It shouldn’t have to take an adults insistence to for hospital staff to pay attention.
During a previous hospital stay (although the treatment was in all fairness, much much better), the mental health team as a whole still weren’t great. I was held on a children’s ward for around ten days whilst they were looking for a psychiatric bed elsewhere, and unfortunately the daily visits from the psych assessment staff (who seemed to ask the same 3 questions each time) continuously made me more distressed. They would frequently ‘misplace’ my notes, or ‘fail to receive a handover’ from whoever had seen me the day before, which only served to make me feel more and more hopeless… how could a team of people who could barely remember my name ever be able to dig me out of such a deep dark hole? The seeming lack of organisation and compassion was not only frustrating, but extremely disheartening. To top it all off, one woman made what was perhaps my favourite comment of the week – having been in treatment with CAMHS for over 5 years (not to mention meeting that very same woman twice a few days before), she asked me at the end of a session “so, do you know what the CAMHS service is?” – as you can imagine, this really took the biscuit.
Thankfully, following that admission, I did finally get the help I needed. I was lucky. But so many young people across the country this just isn’t the case. I’ve heard so many stories of teens resorting to overdose or having to seriously harm themselves just to get the help they are so desperate for. I don’t know about you, but this makes me deeply, deeply sad – No one should have to risk their life just to be listened too. There’s this unspoken rule in the CAMHS – “its not a problem until you prove it’s a problem”, and unfortunately for so many, mental illness remains invisible. Personally, I had been speaking about suicide to my CAMHS worker for months, but it wasn’t until I had landed in hospital that he started to take me seriously (by which point I was essentially “too ill” and needed tier 4 services anyway). Not to mention being told I had needed medication for a long while, but being stuck on a two-month waiting list to regardless – to this day, I have never received that appointment!
Unfortunately, CAMHS as a service is extremely underfunded and understaffed. It’s my belief that for the most part, they are doing the best they can with the little they’ve been given. The waiting lists young people often face are shocking, with even ‘priority’ cases taking upwards of 8 weeks. For a desperate and hurting young person, the prospect of having to cope alone for that waiting period can be enough to push them over the edge, with some much more seriously ill when they finally are assessed. I’ve even known young people to be ‘rejected’ from the service, because they simply don’t tick all of the boxes– they are sick, but not the right kind of sick (which in turn makes them sicker and very likely to re-present anyway). Its clear that CAMHS simply isn’t equipped to handle the sheer volume of cases they’re being faced with, which as a teen who relies on this service, can make you feel very ignored and insignificant.
It does make you wonder – how much money and time would the NHS save on adolescent psychiatric admissions – and tier 4 services in general – if the government would simply invest more money and recourses into prevention in the first place? Perhaps this would also prevent vulnerable young people from being shipped off to psych wards thousands of miles away from friends and family.
There does seem to be this massive misconception that all teenagers are simply untrustworthy troublemakers – (which to be honest probably isn’t helped by the stereotypes we see in the media). Although of course you’ll find a few bad apples in every bunch, if you really take the time to look at today’s generation of young people, you might be surprised at what you find. Today’s teenagers have pioneered some of the most inclusive and accepting attitudes the world has ever seen, especially towards some previously very controversial and segregated communities such as LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities. It’s also my belief that the older generation can be just as (and if not more) dismissive and rude towards others –young people really don’t receive enough credit where credit is due. Some of the younger friends I’ve made along my journey through the mental health system are some of the smartest, most articulate people I’ve ever come across… whilst my experience of certain adults (especially those supposedly in care giving roles) hasn’t always been so positive!
Somewhat unsurprisingly, this complaint also extends to the education system. Don’t get me wrong, there are some bloody brilliant above-and-beyond teachers out there, and on whole, my school did at least try their best to support me through my chaotic home life and mental illness. But there are also some very rude and downright offensive staff members, who seem to go out of their way to be as unsupportive as possible.
Now all of us in the anxiety-club know what its like to experience a panic attack… horrible, right? Well certain aspects of school life can become a real challenge when you suffer from an anxiety or panic disorder. Perhaps you have a class presentation to do, or exams coming up – these events, although relatively small to someone else, can seem unimaginably overwhelming, and sometimes impossible for those of us who deal with this disorder. And I’m not talking about those natural butterflies you get before a test, I mean anxiety disorder – that all consuming feeling of sheer terror that makes your heart beat clean out of your chest, your lips get chapped and your throat run dry, that feeling of being so completely wracked with terror you feel glued to the spot. Teachers more often than not seem to forget that there is in fact a difference. Please, if a student musters up the courage to come to you and open up about how they’re feeling, or maybe to tell you that they’re too scared to perform their PowerPoint to the whole class, or they’re uncomfortable wearing their P.E kit for fear of showing self harm scars – for the love of god, don’t just dismiss or laugh at them. “My anxiety prevents me from doing that” isn’t code for “my laziness prevents me from doing that” – Mental illness is anything but a ticket for an easy life. This isn’t an excuse or a get-out clause.
All too often, this is what I was also met with at school – I’ve had my PTSD and dissociation reduced to “laziness”, my self-harm reduced to “attention seeking” and my chronic depression likened to “sadness”… Why couldn’t I just think more positively? Why wouldn’t I just smile more? Why? Because telling someone with clinical depression to “just smile” is about as useful as telling someone with a broken leg to “just walk” – that’s not how it works.
But this isn’t just about bashing teachers – frustratingly this lack of funding and recourses applies to schools too. The role of a ‘social worker’ and ‘counsellor’ have started to creep into the teacher job description, and in all fairness this just isn’t what they signed up for. Back when I first needed support, much before my journey even began, my school could only afford to employ one trained guidance counsellor for the whole establishment – who, last time a checked, had over a 6 month waiting list.
In a society where 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, there also seems to be a huge lack of education surrounding the entire subject– shouldn’t we be teaching young people about the importance mental and emotional health from the beginning? Perhaps if we incorporated this into the curriculum from an early age, being open about mental health would become more normalised. The lack of talk and this underlying message that mental illness is ‘private’ or ‘taboo’ is only perpetuating the stigma. This is the reason why so many teens would rather suffer in silence than ask for help, why young people are being bullied by their peers for self harming, why parents react with anger born from fear of the unknown – even in the professional community (the very people you expect a no-judgement policy from) this stigma still exists. Just the other day I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, when I came across a registered psychiatric nurse using ‘borderline’ (referring to borderline personality disorder – which was confirmed when I challenged her) as an insult to express her frustration with a politician she didn’t like.
Shockingly, there are also still people working in health care under the impression that more ‘controversial’ aspects of mental illness, such as self-harm, are purely for attention. Not only is this so totally not the case (there are a million and one reasons why a young person might self harm), this argument is more than redundant – why is this being used as a tool to minimise the pain someone must be feeling in order to deliberately cause themselves damage? Whatever the reason, pain is pain, and if a young person really is self harming for attention, why does that make them any less credible or worthy of support? They are clearly lacking that attention elsewhere.
During a separate visit to A&E whilst staying in a children’s home, after taking one look at my arms the nurse so delicately asked, “Why on earth do you do this?”
She patched up my arms rather reluctantly, obviously irritated, and in that moment when I needed support and compassion I once again felt like a burden on the NHS. I can’t help but wonder how her treatment of me might have differed had I come in with a head wound instead.
I will leave you with this – ‘respect your elders’ so the saying goes… but isn’t respect something that needs to be earnt? Shouldn’t adults also learn to be more respectful and kind towards the younger generation? Instead of belittling and demeaning, should we not be empowering a future generation of people who will one day essentially be running our services?
Why can’t we inspire instead of conspire?
To all the wonderful young people out there – we might be young but we can fight to make our voices heard, to help shape a more effective NHS and create the services we would want access too.
So adults everywhere – listen up and start hearing what your teens are really trying to tell you…
clearly, with age doesn’t always come wisdom!
**Written in support of Teen mental health week courtesy of Beacon house trauma centre. Thank you to Beacon house for such an amazing opportunity – I really enjoyed writing for #Raisethevolume week, which gave young people across the country a chance to have their voices heard. Thank you for publishing my work! All credit for the wonderful illustrations goes to Helen from the Beacon house media deperatment**