As we launch our annual Christmas appeal, three parents and their children recall how they overcame their mental health struggles – and how the charity YoungMinds gave them hope for the future
A year ago this week, Martin Bredski received a 3am phone call from his wife to say that their 17-year-old son, Oli, who had been struggling with mental health problems, was missing from his bedroom.
“It was a heart-stopping moment,” says Martin, who was away on business at the time. “Our older daughter had come home from a night out, seen his light on, gone into his room and found a note on his desk. My wife called the police, who found Oli by a motorway bridge half an hour from our house.”
Oli is one of thousands of young people in the UK living with mental health problems, many of whose families are helped by the charity YoungMinds, one of three organisations The Telegraph is supporting in its Christmas Charity Appeal, which launches today.
YoungMinds estimates that three children in every classroom have mental health problems, including anxiety or depression, with half of all problems manifesting by the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. It also claims that three quarters of children with diagnosable mental health problems don’t get access to the support they need from the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), with average waiting times of six months for an appointment and 10 months for treatment to start, and 25 per cent of referrals turned away.
Charities such as YoungMinds have to fill in these gaps, and in the past year its Parents Helpline has given practical advice and support to almost 13,000 concerned parents.
“We receive over 1,000 calls a month from parents, and there’s a surge in September and January after families spend more time with their children over summer or Christmas,” says Jo Hardy, the charity’s head of parent services. “YoungMinds has a callback service where young people or their families can have a 50-minute call with psychiatrists in several different areas, from anxiety to eating disorders, depression or grooming.
“The practical advice and support we offer parents helps their mental health literacy. Often, parents simply don’t know whether that moodiness is just a teenage thing, or something more worrying. We also have young activists, who are combating their own mental health problems through volunteering for the charity.”
Activists co-produce campaigns, speak at events, work with the charity’s policy team and create social media content. “The crisis in children and young people’s mental health is real and it is urgent,” says Hardy. Here, three families who have worked closely with YoungMinds tell us their stories…
‘As a parent, you feel powerless and desperate’
George Hodgson, 22, lives with his parents, Fran and Mike, in Hampshire
Fran: “George was an anxious and hyper child, whereas his older sister was laid-back and calm. But, as all parents know, each child is different, so I wasn’t concerned. When he was nine, George became more anxious than before, so we spoke to his teachers, who taught him mindful-ness techniques, which helped.
“Life carried on as normal but then he turned 16, left school and began a media course at a local college. Out of nowhere, he started having severe panic attacks: the first couple of times he would rush into the kitchen to say he felt weird and couldn’t breathe. We sat him down, made him a cup of tea and wondered if he was getting the flu. Then it carried on happening and he would say, ‘I can’t explain it, Mum, but I’m not right.’
“He also became very emotional and was crying a lot. He didn’t want to leave his bedroom and began obsessively washing his hands. We took him to our GP, who listened to the list of symptoms, took one look at George’s inability to sit still, his tearfulness and shaking, and recognised he had anxiety and OCD.
“He told us we needed to go to CAMHS, but we learnt there was a 40-week waiting list, so we found a private psychiatrist. Something then came out that George hadn’t told us: that summer he’d tried MDMA at a festival, which is a terrible drug for somebody with anxiety. He admitted he was having suicidal thoughts, which is heartbreaking to hear.
“When your child has mental health problems, you don’t feel equipped to deal with it by yourself; you feel powerless, frightened and desperate. As a family, we were on high alert all the time, never knowing what would happen next or what we would wake up to find.
“But then he began receiving treatment, including CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy], and over time his symptoms dissipated. He got in touch with YoungMinds, who helped us with invaluable advice and support. It took nearly three years of treatment and, as George says, he’ll always have anxiety. The difference is he can now cope with it.
“My advice to parents is simple: listen to your instincts and get help. I wish we’d gone to the doctor earlier, but we simply didn’t twig how bad things were, which as a mother makes me feel guilty. There is help out there but you have to look for it, push for it and sometimes pay for it. Charities like YoungMinds make children and their parents realise they’re not alone, which, when you’re going through something as lonely as mental illness, is half the battle.”
George:“Growing up, I thought feeling anxious was normal because it was all I knew. I was fairly happy, however, until I went to a festival in 2012 and tried the drug MDMA, not knowing that drugs would exacerbate my anxiety. After about three weeks, I was convinced the drug was still in my system and those thoughts spiralled in my head.
“I was out in the garden with our horses one day and all these worries turned into a panic attack and I ran inside, convinced I was dying.
“I stopped messaging my friends, and eventually stopped wanting to see them. My world shrank as I became severely ill and I stopped sleeping. I would lie in bed, panicking, and kept rushing to the sink to wash my hands because, in my head, the drug was still on them – and what if it seeped through my skin and back into my bloodstream?
“My psychiatrist taught me to realise it wasn’t the drug causing my rising panic, but the panic attack itself. CBT also taught me the power of rational thinking, and I gradually stopped over-thinking everything.
“When I was really ill, I had suicidal thoughts and that terrified me because I so desperately wanted to live. But the whirling thoughts became too much to cope with. I found out about YoungMinds through googling my symptoms and, along with therapy, what really helped was knowing I wasn’t alone. Other people were suffering like me and that suffering had a name.
“I began volunteering for YoungMinds and created a business, Maison de Choup, which prints slogan T-shirts and hoodies, and 25 per cent of profits go to YoungMinds.
“I’m not cured, but I’m living with it. I still have anxious days but I recognise them and have a bit of self-care, which for me is sleeping more and spending time in the fresh air with our two old ponies, who are very therapeutic to be around.
“The single most important thing with mental health is to talk about how you feel. It doesn’t make you weird or weak. Talk to your best friend, teacher, your parents or anybody else you trust. That is the hardest step, but the most important.”
‘I’ve always been a high achiever, but that’s not always the healthiest way to be’
Harriet Skidmore, 24, lives with her parents in Cornwall
Chris, Harriet’s father: “Harriet got straight As all the way through school. Her first year of Durham University went well and she won a prize, but in her second year things unravelled. The university said she could take a break, after which she had a breakdown and ended up in hospital on the edge of being sectioned.
“As a parent, you’re emotionally wrapped up in your child and share their pain, so to see her like this was unspeakably hard. I’d been taught that you should pick yourself up and get on with things, but I’m no longer sure this is the right view. Harriet was of that view, too, always pushing herself to do better, and when your child does that it’s seen as a good thing. But there’s a tipping point.
“Harriet ended up having a long break from university, during which time she rarely left the house and would often have panic attacks – she also developed anorexia. Whenever my phone rang and up popped ‘H’ for Harriet, I never knew what to expect. Would it be a stranger who had found her in the street? And if I texted her and she didn’t reply, my mind would leap around with worry.
“But by 2016 Harriet gradually got better. Her university was incredibly supportive and I thought it would do her self-esteem good to go back – and through sheer bloody-mindedness, she did. It was an up-and-down time, not helped by the fact her grandfather died – and her hamster. It sounds silly, but animals can be a huge comfort for children with mental illness. But gradually she fought her way through it, and she got a first.
“What I’ve learnt from YoungMinds is that it’s important, as a parent of somebody who is suffering, that you protect your own mental health. I’ve become something of an expert sobber and have cried on planes, in traffic jams and in the street. I never cried before, but I’ve found it’s a good release, and who cares what anybody thinks? I was in the Navy and I often say that Harriet’s illness threw more at me than the Navy ever did.
“And lastly, YoungMinds taught me to stay hopeful. I always tried to take the view that things would get better which, slowly, they did.”
Harriet: “I’ve always been a high achiever and perfectionist but, looking back, that wasn’t always the healthiest way to be. I never felt pressure from my parents or teachers, the pressure came from within, and doing well at school became tied up in my self-esteem. I was known among my friends as the clever one, which becomes something you have to live up to. My first year of university was fine, but something just pushed me over the edge in my second year.
“I became obsessed with my studies, I forgot to eat and I stopped socialising with my house mates. They felt terrible when they realised how ill I had become, but it wasn’t their fault because I was good at hiding my illness. Until one day I wasn’t. I rang my mother, who came up and realised something was badly wrong. She rented a house nearby and spoke to the university, who said I could defer my exams. I couldn’t eat, sleep or function, and one day I lay curled in a ball on the kitchen floor while my mum rang the local hospital.
“They gave me medication to calm me down and because they felt I was in safe hands with my mum, they let me go home. But over the next few months I became too anxious to eat, which led to controlled eating. The rest of my life was out of my control, but I could control what I ate and noticing the scales going down became a comfort. Life became a blur of appointments and medication and my parents took turns to take time off work to care for me. I overdosed on pills, because I couldn’t see a way out.
“It was around this time I heard about YoungMinds. I saw an ad on Facebook and decided to apply to be one of their activists, who use their own experiences to help others. I went on one of their training days in London, which was terrifying, but they were so accommodating. I helped on their Heads Together campaign and met Prince William, and had a lovely chat with him. Being involved in their team gave me a tremendous boost and I knew I was helping others.
“I got through my last year of university and then went to Nicaragua for eight weeks, half of it spent living in a tiny village helping to build a water filtration system. My parents were worried, but I loved every minute. Helping others proved to be a good thing for my emotional health.
“I recently found out I have a job in London as a trainee actuary, which is terrifying but exciting. I still have anxiety but I’m a different person now. I know there’s more to me than just a grade.”
‘He has a bright future ahead of him now’
Oli Bredski, 18, lives with his parents, Martin and Michelle, in Manchester
Martin: “When Oli was seven, he was bullied at school and had therapy to deal with anxiety. We knew he found life tougher than a lot of kids, but matters came to a head when he was 16.
“He arrived home from school one day in tears and told me he was desperately unhappy and had been ringing various counsellors – but nobody would help him because of his age. I did some research and decided we’d pay for him to see a therapist privately, to avoid a wait on the NHS. I wanted Oli to know his mum and I were taking this seriously. We also spoke to his teachers and he began seeing a therapist once a week.
“When he was in the lower sixth, he decided he wanted to help others and wrote a long post about his struggles that he intended to put on Facebook. He showed me the draft, and I’ll be honest, I was worried. But after he posted it, it was shared all over Facebook and 100 per cent of the comments were positive. This taught me a really important lesson: the younger generation are a lot more understanding about mental health than we give them credit for. Who knew 16-year-old boys could be so empathetic? Some friends of ours saw the post and confided that they, too, were struggling with their child.
“It gave Oli such a lift and the school asked him to speak to the younger children about his experience. He also got in touch with YoungMinds about becoming one of their young activists, but he was slightly too young at the time.
“However, mental illness is an ongoing road. Up until a year ago, we were making huge progress, but a year ago this week our daughter found him missing from his room and a note on his desk. After the police found him by a motorway bridge, he was taken to a local hospital and sectioned for his own safety.
“When he came home, he was passed from pillar to post by the mental health services. The system stank and I’m only grateful Oli seemed to have acquired an extra level of strength to pull himself through it.
“Unbelievably, he started thriving again, finished his A-levels and passed his driving test. He decided university wasn’t for him and applied to seven top companies and was offered a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers. One year on from that terrible night where I thought we’d lost Oli, we have him back. And he has a bright future ahead of him now.”
Oli: “I remember a time at school when I just felt exhausted and unhappy. ‘It’s fine,’ I told myself, ‘it’s just called being a teenager.’
“But soon, I reached a point where I felt unable to cope. I got a Saturday job and began saving money: then I rang round psychiatrists and counsellors to see if they could help, and said I would pay for treatment with my savings. But they all told me I was too young, so one day I broke down and told my dad how I felt.
“I expected him to tell me it was a phase, but his reaction was the opposite: he said I’d get the help I needed, which was such a comfort. I began seeing a therapist and writing a blog, which I decided to publish on Facebook. My parents and teachers were wary, but I received such positive feedback that the school asked me to give an assembly on it.
“At this point, Dad and I had come across YoungMinds and I wanted to get involved, but I was too young to be an activist. After the Facebook post and assembly, I was on a high, and last summer was great.
“But in September my grandad passed away and it hit me hard and I started feeling low again. I didn’t want to seek help again because I’d shown everybody how well I was coping.
“One night, a year ago this week, I felt like I couldn’t go on being a burden any more so I got home from babysitting, wrote a note thanking my family and school for supporting me, but explained that, while I’d won the battle with mental health, I’d lost the war.
“I climbed out of my bedroom window so I didn’t wake Mum, and walked to a motorway bridge. What stopped me from going through with things was not the thought of dying, but really hurting myself. I didn’t want to be in pain. So I called the police, who took me to hospital.
“After I was discharged, I had a terrible experience with child mental health services: at 17 I was too old to be treated as a child, but not old enough to be treated as an adult. I fell right through the gap. So I decided to pull myself out and, luckily, things started to fall into place. I passed my driving test, got a new job and in January this year applications for YoungMinds activists opened – and I got the position.
“This week is a year since the night of the motorway bridge and I’m taking my parents out for dinner to celebrate. Life hasn’t been perfect since, but I’ve learnt you can move on, and that it’s not weak to ask for help. It’s actually a sign of strength.”
If you need help, call the Samaritans on 116 123
How to be attuned to your child’s mental health
Many parents begin their calls to YoungMinds describing a series of events and behaviour and asking, “Should I be worried?” Teenagers are stereotypically moody and secretive, after all. So what’s normal and what’s emerging depression? Jo Hardy, the head of parent services at YoungMinds, outlines the key messages for parents.
1. Be the family anchor
Your child may be feeling lost and, as a parent you will be equally frightened. But normality and routine provide comfort for children with mental health problems, so be their rock. Show them you can be upset, but still move on and thrive. You can’t avoid challenges in life, like divorce, bullying and bereavement, but explain to children that you can overcome them.
2. Be part of the solution
Parents make a huge difference in their child’s recovery. You are the expert in your child’s eyes, so respond to those powerful parental instincts. Speak to teachers, your GP, or to YoungMinds. Ask questions and push for answers, and do it early. One in 10 children has an issue that warrants a mental health diagnosis. Of those, only one in four gets support. However, 20 per cent of children have a problem that won’t develop. If your child is in that 20 per cent, get in early because you can do so much with emerging anxiety and depression.
3. Check in with them
At YoungMinds, we advise parents to check in with their children of all ages regularly, to find out how they are. Don’t interrogate them, but listen and be receptive and supportive. And separate the behaviour from the child, making it clear you love them regardless of how they’re acting. Maintain communication and don’t burn bridges.
4. Take care of yourself
As a parent going through a child’s mental health problem, you have to be OK. Too often, parents are so focused on holding it together for their children that they don’t look after themselves. Make sure you eat well, sleep enough, and lean on those around you. Talk about how you’re feeling and cry if you need to. This also helps your child because they may eventually model your coping behaviour.
5. Look out for red flags by thinking about age-appropriate behaviour
If your four-year-old clings to your leg at school drop-off, that’s normal. If your eight-year-old does it, that’s not right. Look out for big changes in mood, behaviour, eating and sleep. Are they withdrawing from things they used to find enjoyable? Are they becoming more aggressive, or tearful?
6. Don’t be too prescriptive
While it’s helpful to glance around and look at your children’s peers to determine age-appropriate behaviour, it’s also worth noting that, just like they hit walking and talking milestones at different times, they hit emotional milestones at different times, too. So take your child into account. If they have never liked sport, they may be withdrawn at sports day. However, if they’ve always loved sport and then they begin to withdraw from it, that’s something to look out for. An ability to form and develop relationships and a well-developed sense of right and wrong is a marker for good mental health, as is being able to withstand some psychological stress.
7. Write things down
If you decide to see your GP, which you can do alone or with your child, arrive with a list. Many parents go to their GP at the end of their tether and feeling tearful, and may be dismissed as over-anxious. Make a list of what happens, when it happens, how long it’s been happening and how it effects your day-to-day lives. Quantify things to make a case. Schools can also refer your child or strengthen your case with a GP, if you need it.
Call the YoungMinds Parents Helpline on 0808 802 5544, or visit youngminds.org.uk
To make a donation to this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, click here or call 0151 284 1927
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