There are some images from my six months as registrar in child psychiatry that stay with me.
It was the early 1980s and the social worker and I were visiting a young single parent living on the 9th floor of a tower block in Salford 6. She had just moved back to live with her parents after the breakdown of her relationship. As she opened the door we were greeted by her 6 year old daughter, a pretty little girl who danced towards us, twirling around in circles. Only she continued to twirl around, and around, and around the overcrowded space completely absorbed in in own world. According to her mother she spent much of the day performing an unearthly dance between the furniture and screaming loudly every time she was prevented from doing this. She had no words. I could see how much her mother and grandparents loved her, but their faces were lined with desperation. The young mother already had the air, and appearance of someone at least a decade older than her years.
“I’ve been told she’s autistic,” she said, starting to cry, “but I don’t know how to cope with her…I just can’t, and now my husband has left me.”
It wasn’t difficult to see what was needed was some intensive support for the whole family. It was then, as now, in short supply but that didn’t stop us trying to put it in place. In my time at the clinic in the old Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in Salford (not the shiny new one at the Infirmary) I witnessed over and again the impact of serious mental health problems and difficulties on families already struggling to cope in unsuitable or substandard housing. And it reminded me, sometimes too often, of the impact that the problems of my younger brother, who developed obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of 7, had on my own parents’ physical and mental health.
As my friends will know, I’m not particularly ‘good’ with children (I have none of my own) so when I was on-call over the weekend I struggled to try and strike up conversations with silent teenagers in the paediatric ward, the day after they had taken an overdose. They usually went something like this:
‘Hello, my name is Doctor Gask. And your name is Jenny- is that right?’
Silence…no eye contact…a reluctant nod.
‘I really wanted to find out what happened to you- to see if we can help…is that okay?’
…’I suppose so.’
‘OK. So would you like to tell me what happened yesterday?’
I soon learned, by watching the consultant I was attached to, a kind and extraordinarily astute child psychiatrist who was close to retirement, that direct questions were not the way to engage a young person in talking about their problems. If they turned up for a follow up appointment- and that often unfortunately depended on whether their parents saw the need for them to have any help, not only their own willingness to come, he would set about making a young person feel at ease, without actually appearing to make any effort at all. He would smile like a genial grandfather, and simply strike up a chat about things completely unrelated to the events that had brought them into hospital: their favourite pop stars (they were not called ‘bands’ then), hobbies, best friends and gradually build trust before moving onto the thorny question of why they had taken the tablets. After forty minutes or so he would be ready to ask: ‘So how would you like things to be different?’ followed by ‘I wonder how we can help you with that…should we try and look at that together?’
I realized quite soon into my six months working with children and young people that this wasn’t where I wanted to be for the rest of my career. I didn’t have the kind of skills and patience that the consultant had. I found it difficult to work with families where children whose apparently quite normal behavior did not meet the expectations of their parents. In particular I felt angry when parents failed to take up the offer of help because of their perception (perhaps rightly so) that we were suggesting the difficulties their children presented with had a great deal to do with their own life problems and parenting style.
However what I did learn, and has never left me, was the acute awareness of how the people I saw later in their lives with depression and anxiety, in their twenties, thirties and older, had first developed difficulties with their mental health in their youth. This was where their problems had begun.
I returned to work in Salford 20 years later and helped to set up a primary care based mental health team. Our base, at first, was in a building attached to the old Salford Royal Hospital where I had attempted and failed to strike up conversations on a Saturday morning. Only now the building, like many older hospitals, had been converted into luxury flats. As I discussed in supervision, with the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, the problems of the people being referred to us, I was acutely aware that the generation we had struggled to help back in the 80’s were the very people now presenting to the mental health services. What happens to us in early life- our relationships, experiences within our own families, continues to have an impact on our mental well-being for the rest of our lives.
Services for children and young people with mental health problems have never been well funded and now in the UK they have been cut more than ever before. What services do exist are withdrawn at school leaving age and very many of those who have succeeded in getting help fail to meet the ever more selective criteria of adult mental health services, unless they have been lucky enough to be seen in some of the newer services which don’t recognize this traditional cut-off point, which is completely unsupported by what we now know from research:
‘not only that adult mental health disorders are common in the population, but that most of them have their onset by adolescence. This period of life after puberty also sees a range of important organisational developments in the brain that last until the late 20s and usher in adulthood as might be defined from a developmental rather than a social or legal point of view.’
Yet this is exactly the period when adequate mental health care is perhaps most difficult to access.
I was recently asked in an interview (by Ruth Hunt) what my priority would be for funding when the new money promised for mental health care, too little once more, finally arrives. I didn’t hesitate. It has to be for children and young people, if we are going to begin to try and prevent the cycle of suffering. More families failing to cope and the next generation experiencing the same problems.
It has to be children and young people first.
My memoir about depression and Psychiatry: The Other Side of Silence is available now