10 Ways to Help Your Mentally Ill Child

This week is Children’s Mental Health week and with 1 in every 10 children displaying symptoms of mental illness and a great deal of adults (me included) starting their mentally ill journey in childhood, I thought I’d tackle the problem head on and explain what ways you as a parent can help your child who is, or may become, mentally ill. Here are 10 things to do when talking to your mentally ill, or possibly mentally ill child.

1. Reassure them – The first thing that’s really important is to reassure yourself and your child that it’s really common to suffer from mental illness and it’s ok. People can and do recover from mental illness and many of us go on to lead perfectly normal lives either free from mental illness or managing its impact on us. We’re often perfectly capable of being at school, going to university, getting a job, getting married, having a family, and doing all of the things that are considered ‘normal’. 1 in 4 adults in the UK have a mental illness each year and 1 in 3 will in their lifetime – it’s really common and you can overcome it.

2. It’s not about you – The last thing your child needs is for you to blame yourself or start thinking about what you could have done to prevent it or how you might have caused it. If your child became diabetic or got cancer, you wouldn’t blame yourself, you’d just go into overdrive about how you could get treatment, this is the best way forward with mental health too – it’s an illness like any other. You’re not a terrible parent and having a child with a mental illness doesn’t mean anything about you. Keep focusing on them.

3. It’s not their fault – Their condition isn’t because of anything they have or haven’t done and no matter how much it looks like it, it’s not in their control. Telling them to cheer up, think positively, or just eat more, or telling them a list of all the things they have to live for won’t help them at all and will just alienate them further than their condition is already doing. Trust that they are doing their best to manage their condition and don’t EVER blame them!

4. Believe them – The most damaging thing I have experienced during my mental illnesses has been being disbelieved and accused of lying. Children do lie but it’s very rare that they’ll lie about mental illness for any length of time and if they’ve managed to pluck up the courage to tell you that they’re not ok, then you need to sit up and listen because they may not tell you again. Always believe them!

5. Take it seriously – This is not a phase. Mental illness is not the same as raging hormones or having a stroppy teenager. The things they’re going through may well not pass after a couple of rough months of sulking and door-slamming and you need to be prepared for this. Don’t play it down or dismiss it, listen to them and take action if necessary. Always take mental illness symptoms seriously.

6. Do something – If you notice changes in your child’s behaviour that you’re worried about, ask them about it. Don’t be afraid of discovering mental illness because the sooner you know what you’re battling, the sooner you can start fighting it with your child and the more likely they are to recover. Don’t wait, do something as soon as you have concerns!

7. Get help – If you or your child are concerned, go to your family doctor and make sure they believe your child and take them seriously. If they don’t listen, take them to another doctor until someone does. The sooner your child gets treatment, the better their chances of making a full recovery and learning coping strategies and management skills so they can go on to live a happy and fulfilled life. Children are often dismissed and fobbed off (I certainly was), don’t allow this to happen or treatment may be offered way too late. Don’t give up until they get the help they need.

8. Talk to them – Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away and if your child doesn’t have someone to talk to, they may deteriorate faster. It is likely to be very difficult and painful for you to hear that your child is suffering and hurting, but it’s much better for them to be able to confide in someone and for you to be kept up to date with how they’re doing so that you can get more help for them if it becomes necessary. Mental illness is utterly isolating and this is made so much worse when people around you are scared of talking about the feelings that you’re struggling so much with. Try to put your own feelings aside and listen to your child in a non-judgemental way so that they feel safe and able to express themselves. Just talk to them!

9. Research – Read about mental illness and when doing so, ignore everything the media tells you, mentally ill people are not often rampaging serial killers, they’re not crying in a heap constantly, mental illness has many faces and takes many forms and media representations are almost always wrong. Read real-life accounts of mental illness so that you can gain understanding about what it’s like to live with on a day-to-day basis (you can read about my own experiences of mental illness here). Find out about the symptoms and warning signs of the most common conditions so that you can be prepared and know what to look out for (links to useful websites below). Research, research, research – knowing what you’re fighting make it so much easier to fight effectively!

10. You can do it! – Mental illness is scary and unknown, and when you’re thrown into the midst of it, it can be terrifying, but by talking to your child about it, you will empower yourself and them to deal with it in the best way possible, as quickly as possible. Your child will be equipped to help their friends who might start displaying symptoms or confide in them that they’re feeling something different and they will also know that mental illness isn’t a taboo subject in your household so they can talk to you about it if something’s worrying them about themselves or someone else. Most of all, remember that anything you do off this list will be better than nothing and you can become a team with your child to tackle this together. You may not believe it but You CAN Do It!

Please share this as widely as possible so that parents and other adults who children might confide in can be equipped to deal with it. One of my favourite quotes comes from Bill Clinton who said “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all”.

If you need more help, information or advice, please visit the following links.



Dignity and Respect – Being Treated Like a Human Being (World Mental Health Day)

October the 10th was World Mental Health Day and this year’s theme was dignity. I originally thought this didn’t apply to my situation because I am, mostly, dignified whilst being ill and treated with dignity, or so I thought. I started this post by looking up the definition which I found to be as follows:
Dignity – The state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.
As soon as I read that, I realised that I was wrong – while I may behave in a dignified manner, I’ve certainly not always been treated in a dignified way and have often not felt worthy of honour or respect because of the way I’ve been behaved towards.

Dignity is something that is often overlooked when treating people with mental health problems and we are often not given the respect we deserve. Sadly, this behaviour is often directed towards us by the very people who we have sought help from, who are trained to deal with our conditions and who we are reliant upon to offer or refer us for treatment. Is it any wonder then that it takes most people such a long time to even go to their GP when they suspect they may be mentally ill? Stigma is still rife within our society and while it is improving and openly stigmatic behaviour is starting to reduce, there is still a really long way to go and unfortunately, nowhere is this more necessary than within the medical community.

My experience of seeking treatment has been very varied and it’s often a very lengthy process. Even when I’ve gone to my GP about physical problems, I’m often disbelieved or it’s assumed that my symptoms are psychosomatic or even made up – all because I have a mental illness. I’m regularly talked down to, patronised and treated with condescension and this has very much put me off doctors and seeking help unless I really have to because I simply don’t have the energy to fight for someone, who should be understanding and sympathetic, to even believe me. Couple with this, the responses I’ve had from doctors when attempting to get a diagnosis or treatment for my mental illnesses and we’ve got one hell of a problem.

A month before I turned 16, circumstances in my life led to me feeling incredibly sad and low and unable to cope anymore, pretty much over night. Mental illness was not something that had featured in my life up until that point – none of my relatives or friends were ill to my knowledge and my only experience was that of over-hyped and dramatized portrayals in the media of violent offenders and people muttering to themselves and rocking whilst strapped into straight-jackets in padded cells. So when I started feeling low and it didn’t go away, I didn’t know what to do. I thought people would think I was silly and that I should just be able to cheer myself up because nothing terrible had happened, no one had died, I hadn’t been attacked, things were just going wrong at home. Eventually, after 2 months of never feeling better, I finally plucked up the courage to go to the doctors. I thought I was going to get sectioned or medicated but I didn’t know what else to do and the thoughts I was having were starting to scare me. I explained to my GP what was wrong and that this wasn’t normal for me. After 10 minutes she told me that it was “January Blues” and “every teenager in the country is feeling like this at the moment”. I said to her at the time that there would be a lot of suicides if that were the case but I was sent home and she did nothing. Two months later I went back, I’d started self-harming and was feeling suicidal every day, she took one look at me and referred me to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service because I was very ill and needed help. The first doctor I met there was great, he treated me like a person and was very respectful and understanding about how bad I was feeling and that something needed to be done about it. I wasn’t so lucky with any of the other staff I met there. I was allocated a nurse who I saw once a week who spoke to me like a child and contradicted me every time I said I was feeling worse. I was put on medication more than once and never monitored properly and then told off and admonished when I took myself off it because it was making me suicidal and I felt unsafe. I felt like a naughty child, not a 16-year-old who clearly knew their own mind and felt in danger.

Fast forward to 18 months ago and dignity was thrown out the window by my new GP who decided that telling me to “try harder” whilst dealing with crippling side effects from medications that were later described by a psychiatrist as “virtually poisoning you”, was the best way forward. I practically had to beg her to even refer me to a psychiatrist despite having a history of medication-resistant depression because she felt that I didn’t need one and she was doing a “perfectly good job of treating me herself”. Eventually she conceded and I was able to see a psychiatrist. This has been a good and bad experience. I’ve been lied to, fobbed off, ignored, disbelieved and dismissed. At points I’ve been spoken to like the knowledgeable, well-educated adult that I am who is well aware of the limitations of the NHS and who has studied, worked in and experienced as a patient, the mental health services in this country. But that has been rare. Instead of treating me with dignity and respect, most decisions about my treatment are made without me, often without my knowledge and my very character is often questioned when it’s assumed that my conditions simply can’t be as bad as I’m describing. I highly doubt cancer patients are treated like this when vomiting because of chemo or dealing with hair loss – are they told by doctors to just “try harder” or “stop focusing on the negative thoughts”? I think not! So why am I? Why am I dismissed and treated with so little respect?

It’s clear that many doctors have never been mentally ill, and they’re very lucky. But for those of us that are, it’s hard enough trying to deal with the conditions we have and the things that go hand-in-hand with that like low self-esteem and self-worth without having to deal with doctors judging us, accusing us of faking it, exaggerating, or causing it ourselves. It’s so hard to pluck up the courage to even go to the GP and admit that there’s a problem that you can no longer cope with or hide, without fearing how they might react to you. In an ideal world, we would all be treated as human beings, with dignity and respect, regardless of what symptoms or conditions we have. But currently, this isn’t the case. Something has got to change. Medical professionals, especially those that don’t work in frontline mental health services, are vastly ill-equipped and under-trained to deal with mental illness and instead of seeing people like me as people who are ill, they just seem to see us as walking labels. They still seem to have hugely stigmatic beliefs about us being in control of our conditions and able to just “snap out of it” or “pull ourselves together” and we’re treated accordingly, with disdain, coldness and even aggression sometimes.

First and foremost I’m a human being. After that, I’m many many things – I’m Lucy, I’m female, I’m 24 years old, I’m kind and caring, I’m creative, I’m a great friend. I’m also mentally ill but I’m not those conditions. I’m not anxiety, I’m not depression – I have those, but I’m not them. I am a human being and that entitles me to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of what conditions I might have. The sooner I’m viewed as a person rather than a list of symptoms, the sooner I’ll be viewed as someone who is suffering and should be treated with dignity rather than a problem that needs to fixed or made to “see sense”. I might be mentally ill but I’m not mad, I don’t lie, I don’t make things up, I’m completely rational. If I say I’m ill, if I say I’m suffering then I’m not trying to gain another label or diagnosis for fun – I don’t get points for it, they certainly don’t convert to prizes. The only reason I seek diagnosis is in the vain hope that it might lead to treatment. Being spoken to in such a dismissive way has stopped me seeking help for most of my conditions and has had a major impact on my self-esteem because it makes me feel less of a person to have a doctor questioning me and treating me with so little respect.

Finally, while I’ve focused on the medical profession within this post, they are certainly not the only people that have not treated me with the dignity and respect I deserve. As you’ll have read in previous blog posts, I’ve been treated disrespectfully by a whole host of people throughout my time as an ill person and this has got to change. You can be that change. Next time you’re talking to someone who’s mentally ill, really listen to what they’re saying, don’t try to fix it, dismiss it, or make them see the positive – just listen. Then think about how you would want someone to respond if you’d just said all of that and were feeling that way. Chances are, you’d just want to be acknowledged, to be accepted and to feel heard. Most of all, you’d want to be treated with Dignity and Respect – you’d want to be Treated Like a Human Being. Be that change today!

N.B – A huge thanks goes to Steve “Squidoodle” Turner for his amazing Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbon Colouring Page which I coloured in green for Mental Health Awareness. If you’d like to get a copy to colour yourself, he’s generously offered it as a free download on his Facebook Page which can be found here. Enjoy and help raise awareness!

What’s Wrong With Your Eyebrows? – Trichotillomania!

Trichotillomania. You’ve probably not even heard of this condition. Neither had I. That was, until I saw a documentary on Channel 4 about 5 years ago where I suddenly realised that other people like me existed and that I wasn’t the “freak” I had first thought. I will point out here that I’m not diagnosed with this condition but I’m 99% sure that I have it and as there’s very little treatment for it, I’m sparing myself from having to add another diagnosis to my official list. But back to the condition and what it is – trichotillomania is an impulse-control disorder where sufferers feel compelled to pull out their own hair. This is often from the scalp but also commonly includes eyebrows and eyelashes. Patients with the condition often experience shame, guilt and embarrassment, and as the condition is quite rare and not well known, most patients only find out through the media or their doctor, potentially years after developing the condition. Treatment, if offered, usually involves patients having some form of psychological therapy as it’s widely believed to be a condition, caused by or linked to stress.

I don’t remember when I first started pulling out my own hair and I’m lucky enough that I’ve never felt compelled to pull out hair from my scalp which often causes sufferers to have bald patches and in extreme cases damage so severe that the hair doesn’t grow back. The earliest memory I have of it is when I was about 12 before I started shaving my legs and I used to pull the hairs out of my knees. It used to hurt at first so I’ve got no idea why I continued but it seemed to give me a sense of relief and I got some sense of pleasure from it. I don’t remember how often I did it but I know it was something I did regularly. When I was 16 I got depression and sometime before or during that period I started pulling out my eyelashes. Again, it really hurt to begin with but it was really compelling and I felt I had to do it. It became completely habitual and I wouldn’t even notice I was doing it. I have very sensitive fingertips and I’d sit at my desk at school or on the sofa or lie in bed and I’d stroke along my lash line forwards and backwards and then pull out hairs. I’d try really hard to stop myself because I started getting big gaps that were becoming very noticeable as I have naturally dark, quite long eyelashes, but I couldn’t stop myself until the urge went away. For months I did this and at various points over the years I’ve had no eyelashes at all because I pulled them out so frequently.

Unfortunately, when I turned 18 I started pulling out my eyebrows too. I regularly end up with gaps in one or both of my eyebrows and it’s really noticeable because I have dark hair and pale skin as you can see from the photos above. There was even a point where I got so stressed one Christmas that I ended up with no eyebrows at all and people thought I’d shaved them off which was awful. I didn’t know which was more humiliating, saying I or someone else had shaved them off, or that I was so stressed that I’d pulled them out. I’ve had some really horrible comments over the years and people are very blunt when they ask about it. I regularly get asked “What’s wrong with you?”, “What happened to your eyebrows?” and even online from a stranger got asked “What the fuck is wrong with you? You look like an alien. Or a man.” On a couple of occasions I’ve even been asked if I have cancer. I’m now very self-conscious and try to have a full or side fringe to cover up my eyebrows so it’s less noticeable. I also used to have blonde highlights because then, at least from a distance, it looked like I just had fair eyebrows and eyelashes that couldn’t be seen. It’s hard though. As a child I grew up doing dance performances on stage and was wearing make-up for that from the age of 6. I’ve only ever worn full eye make-up on stage because by the time I’d have worn it normally, I wasn’t able to. I’ve not been able to wear mascara or dark eyeliner since I was 15 and as silly as it may sound, that’s one of my dreams for when I hopefully beat this condition. I long for the day when I can buy and apply mascara and eyeliner.

My hair pulling is certainly linked to my stress levels as I do it far more when I’m feeling worried or nervous and would often do it during exams while reading the questions or when I was trying to think up the answers. Because it’s habitual I’m not aware that I do it a lot of the time which makes stopping myself very difficult. I’m a very open person normally and there’s not a lot that I won’t talk about, but this is something that very few people in my life know about (until now). In fact, I’ve only told 5 people about it and I feel very apprehensive about posting this online for the world to see. If I didn’t though I wouldn’t be practicing what I preach. I firmly believe that we should all be able to talk about whatever illnesses and conditions we have. People aren’t embarrassed that they bite their nails or smoke so I shouldn’t be embarrassed that I feel compelled to pull out my hair. Maybe if more people knew about the condition, I wouldn’t keep having to deal with horrible ignorant comments about my appearance. So there you have it, I’ve opened up my soul and posted some of my most hated photographs showing just how bad my condition has got over the years but hopefully in the good cause of explaining and answering – What’s Wrong With Your Eyebrows? – Trichotillomania!

For more information please visit the following websites:

Mental Illness – The Next Generation

According to the above article 300,000 children and adolescents in the UK are affected by anxiety disorders. We need to be treating them quickly and more importantly, effectively, so that they don’t become adults with mental illness. It is well documented that the quicker a person receives treatment, the more likely they are to recover. They also recover faster and to a better extent than those receiving the same treatment at a later stage in the condition. This means that time is of the essence and we need to shorten waiting times and increase access to age-appropriate services which are currently severely lacking.

The month before I turned 16 I developed depression. I had a lot going on in my life and I was struggling to keep up with it all but had been managing it until the depression hit. It was like I’d forgotten how to cope overnight and everything felt totally overwhelming. I felt sad all the time and cried a lot and had no idea why. My parents weren’t getting on, my Grandad’s Alzheimer’s was deteriorating and I was in my final GCSE year and it was all too much. After 2 months of feeling like this every day I went to my GP and explained the situation. I’d done lots of research and figured out that I almost certainly had depression which I suggested to her. I was practically laughed out of the room and told I had “January Blues” and that “every other teenager in the country is feeling like you are right now”. I told her that this wasn’t true and that I’d never felt like this before and that I needed some help and she simply said that it would wear off and sent me on my way.

Two months later I went back to the same GP because I was feeling much worse. The suicidal thoughts had started and I had begun to self-harm as a means of coping. The GP was the first person I told about any of it. She became very worried and seemed surprised that I was now so ill. She offered to refer me straight to the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) at my local hospital so that I could be assessed, and I agreed. I think I waited about a month for that appointment and within 10 minutes of seeing the doctor there I was diagnosed with depression and had a prescription for Prozac in my hand. And so my journey into the Mental Health Service had begun. A side note here – I have had a lot of negative experiences with GP’s who are simply not trained enough to notice, diagnose or even talk properly to patients with mental health problems. They are the first port of call and it is soul-destroying when they tell you to try harder, don’t believe you, or even turn you away from getting the help you’re desperate for. This has got to change and GP’s really need more training in this area!

CAMHS was not a good experience for me, I’ll go more into it at a later date but I wasn’t treated well and was often not believed and patronised by a nurse who was apparently a specialist. I saw a different doctor every time and there was never any talk of therapy, just medication and writing a diary. I was 16 at the time but I was treated like a child and often talked to as if I was stupid and didn’t know my own mind. After a year of this I went to see another GP who wasn’t in the least surprised that CAMHS had succeeded in nothing other than watching me deteriorate and he informed me that he’d been campaigning longer than I’d been alive for them to improve their service. I was lucky enough that at the time my family had private medical insurance and he recommended a psychiatrist at my local Priory hospital. After 3 months of seeing the psychiatrist I’d become so ill that I needed inpatient treatment and in May 2008 I was admitted voluntarily for 9 weeks. Whilst there I was by far the youngest patient at only 17 and everyone else was nearly 10 years older than me and more. Most were the same age as my parents. Being treated like an adult was so much better than being treated like a child, however it was a challenge in the intensive CBT sessions we had because my problems were very different from everyone else’s due to my age.  All credit to the staff there though, they were brilliant at adapting the sessions to me and the patients became like a family (more on this also at a later date).

Circumstances led to my treatment being placed back with the NHS the following year and I was offered group CBT for stress management. Again, I was by far the youngest at 18 years old with the next youngest being in their late 30’s. This caused a huge amount of problems in the session because it wasn’t applicable to my life at all. When we had to come up with a list of stressors I was saying things like college and they were all saying about work. One woman looked directly at me and then offered “children” as a stressor so I looked straight back and said “parents”!  The group wasn’t suitable for me at all and after speaking to the therapist at the end we both agreed that I wouldn’t really get anything out of it and so I left. After that my psychiatrist at the time said that there was very little they could offer me that I hadn’t already tried because I don’t respond to medication and they couldn’t offer appropriate therapy for my age. This, as shown in the article above, is a very common problem. Children aged 8 have very different problems from teenagers, who in turn, have very different problems from working-age adults. We already separate mental healthcare into working-age adults and older adults and I think that there is desperate need to have dedicated adolescent/teenage services. Those who are aged 14-19 should have their own dedicated treatment services because their issues are so different from other age groups in terms of their development and life circumstances. There are so many transitions to go through at this age and older adults who have their own children will simply not have the same problems and therefore there is little to be gained by lumping everyone into one big group session where ultimately everyone feels alienated by a lack of common experience. Group therapy can be great if you get the group dynamic right but placing an 18 year old in with someone in their 50’s just isn’t helpful.

We need to be intervening early with children and adolescents who are showing signs of mental illness so that they can get treatment quickly but it’s essential that they are then given age-appropriate treatment by people who are trained in working with patients of that age group. Without this we’re simply leading the next generation of mentally ill people towards a long journey of poor or even no treatment and increasing the likelihood that they’ll be ill for life.  You may or may not believe that children (and adolescents) are our future but they certainly deserve their own future to be free from mental illness and the first step towards this is creating age-appropriate services dedicated to this!