Voices: I was a child with mental health problems. Nothing excuses the way I was treated

·7-min read

Reading the report from The Independent’s investigation into children’s mental health care was, sadly, all too familiar. The investigation uncovered the fact that many children and young people with serious mental health problems are being admitted to the wrong wards for treatment. Some aren’t even getting on to a mental health ward, never mind a specialist mental health ward that caters for their needs.

As somebody who was sectioned at 15, has been admitted to multiple psychiatric wards over many years as well as wards within general hospitals, and who even ended up on an adult forensic ward aged 17 despite never having committed a crime, I know only too well the distress and harm that this issue can cause.

My mental health problems began when I was 15. I started experiencing severe panic attacks and hallucinations. However, when my parents took me to see the GP and local mental health team, I was told that my mental health wasn’t bad enough to warrant help. It wasn’t until I became actively suicidal that they intervened, but even then, and for the many years that followed, I didn’t get the correct help. Because of this, my mental health became so bad that I nearly died through suicide and self-harm many times.

A&E was often the first port of call when I was suicidal, but they just didn’t know how to deal with somebody who was suicidal. There was no clear pathway in place, and I ended up being admitted to a paediatric ward five or six times after suicide attempts. When I finally got to see the mental health team, I was simply given medication; but, on its own, it did a lot more harm than good.

Eventually, still aged 15, I was sectioned. But things got progressively worse.

I have quite complex diagnoses, and it’s hard to get a diagnosis until you’re 18 anyway. I didn’t fit neatly into someone with anxiety, or depression, or OCD, so my care was really chaotic. I ran away from hospital a lot, getting picked up by the police and dragged back (often kicking and screaming), over and over again. It seemed like a neverending cycle of being passed around.

That was the summer of 2016. After that, it got to the point where they realised they couldn’t help me, but at that point so much damage had already been done. They discharged me and I went back home with my parents still actively suicidal and psychotic. The expectation of my parents by professionals to care for such an unwell child was horrific. No parent should ever have to witness what mine did. We all felt a bit abandoned by services, and at a loss about what to do next.

This is when my self-harming increased, and my eating problems became really severe. It was my GCSE year, so I was trying to study for my exams. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa only months after I was discharged, so whilst desperately trying to catch up on the work I had missed while I was in hospital, I had somebody supervising me at mealtimes at school. The deal was that if I wanted to stay in school, I had to eat my meals.

During this time I was regularly in and out of hospital, being fed via a feeding tube that passed through my nose and into my stomach. It was as though every time my physical health went downhill they’d admit me, but my mental health didn’t seem as important – even though I was constantly suicidal and self-harming.

I was sectioned more times, once being admitted to an intensive unit for CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) patients far from home. Not long after, I was transferred to an eating disorder unit. It was traumatic. Similar to my first admission, the staff there were really awful to me, both emotionally and physically. I had a feeding tube in constantly, and was often held down by five people to be force fed through it.

As my self-harm increased, I was taken to and from a surgical ward at the general hospital. Eventually the eating disorder unit refused to take me back, claiming that my risk was too high for them to handle. I was stranded in the general hospital with two security and two nurses by my side 24/7 to keep me safe from myself, and my belongings were chucked in black binbags into the back of my mum’s car.

I was then sent to an adult forensic ward, aged 17. It was terrifying – the most scared I’ve ever been in my life.

After a few months there, I was moved to a CAMHS secure unit where I finally started making good progress. I was still self-harming and being tube fed, but things felt a little more settled. The staff were so kind and caring, and I think that played a huge factor in seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

Unfortunately more transfers, admissions, and sections followed. I was still being tube fed, and my self-harm and suicide attempts continued to warrant surgery. Things got so bad that I required a major surgery, and I also spent time in a coma in the intensive care unit.

Eventually, just as I was turning 18, once I had been transferred to an adult ward, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder on top of the anorexia.

During all of this, I had no access to consistent therapeutic care. I was abused and violated by some of the staff on the mental health wards, and I felt like I was just getting worse and worse. I had no hope that things could ever change.

Eventually, I was referred to St Andrew’s Healthcare – a charity that provides specialist mental healthcare. I was terrified of going, but it’s ultimately what saved my life.

I had regular therapy, including DBT (Dialectical behavioural therapy) which is a specialist form of therapy for patients with BPD and EMDR – a therapy for patients struggling with trauma. I also had someone keeping a close eye on my medication, changing it when things weren’t going right and spending time trying out new approaches.

Staff plaited my hair, played games with me, and actually spoke to me like a normal human being, which was unbelievably refreshing after all the trauma previous professionals had inflicted on me. They refused to give up on me and, eventually, for the first time since I was 15, things stabilised for me.

I was at St Andrew’s for just under three years, and I began to see that life was worth living. I even self-taught and passed my biology A-Level while there.

Today, aged 21, I can say I haven’t seriously self-harmed in months, and I’m now living in supported accommodation and making plans for the future. I’m going to study biomedicine at university, travel, and write my memoir. I’ve also started a fundraiser making mental healthcare packages for young people struggling with their mental health on general paediatric wards. I honestly never believed I’d be able to feel this way and achieve so much.

I truly believe that if I had been given the right care when I was 15, I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life in hospital – and I wouldn’t have suffered so many serious risks to my life. Interventions need to happen quickly, and complex mental health problems need to be treated with consistency, specialist knowledge and, importantly, care and understanding. With these things in place, more people will make it out alive as I did. Not everyone is as lucky.