Nothing prepares you for your child being affected by a mental illness. There is nothing in the parenting manuals that can help you to understand and cope with the total change that comes over someone once they are in the grips of such an illness. I can only describe it as truly shocking, terrifying ... and utterly bewildering.
In the early part of 2009, my daughter, Jess, was, seemingly, your average 15 year old – an attractive, popular, bright girl, with many friends and a prediction of good grades at GCSE. Whilst not a confident girl, Jess lived a full life and was involved with a local drama group, played the saxophone, and was a member of the local swimming club. And then something changed ...
In the months that followed, Jess became crippled by a total lack of confidence - in herself as a person, her abilities, her appearance, her reason for being. She developed issues with food, began self harming on a daily basis, and her anxiety levels were such that attending school became all but impossible. She was depressed, rarely leaving her room, cutting herself off from her friends and everything that had previously made up her life.
In just 6 short months, Jess went from leading a normal life to being admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit.
What do you do when your beautiful teenage daughter says to you, “if you love me Mum, just let me die”? That was, beyond all doubt, the most heartbreaking and devastating moment of my life - a true moment of despair and one which will remain with me forever. In just 6 short months, Jess went from leading a normal life to being admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit.
At various points throughout Jess’s illness, on top of coping with the symptoms and repercussions of the illness itself, she has also had the difficulty of knowing how and what to tell others about what she’s been going through. Whilst Jess had many school friends, there were very few who she ever told about her problems. This was partly because she was ashamed, partly because she didn’t want to worry or frighten them, and lastly because she was afraid of their reactions.
Most of them only knew the full extent of her troubles the day before she was admitted to the psychiatric unit, when she went in to school to tell them that she wouldn’t be around for a while. Sadly, for some of them, what Jess was going through was simply too much for them to take on and their life and hers have since taken very different paths.
What a difference it would have made if the school had known how to handle Jess’s illness
What a difference it would have made if the school had known how to handle Jess’s illness, how to help her talk about her troubles, had had information to pass on to her friends. As it was, I had to find information to pass to the school, to her friends and teachers. Jess herself subsequently advised the school on tell-tale signs to look out for to identify self-harming.
Rumours amongst Jess’s peers about why she was absent from school ranged from her being in prison, having had a serious car crash to facial reconstruction! Had she, God forbid, got cancer or even a broken leg, these rumours would not have been circulating because people would have simply known the truth and would have understood what she was going through.
when Jess eventually returned to school just before her GCSEs, she didn’t know what to say
As it was, when Jess eventually returned to school just before her GCSEs, she didn’t know what to say and nor did anyone else ... so nothing was said! Having been absent from school for nearly 8 months, and in a psychiatric unit for 5 of those months, she just had to try and slot back in and carry on as though nothing had happened. In the end, it was just simply too stressful for Jess to be at school except for a few hours here and there.
Despite this, through sheer determination and will, Jess sat 8 of the 11 GCSEs that she had originally been intending to take. I am immensely proud of her that she passed all of those exams. There are few who would have put themselves through even going back into school after everything she had been through, let alone taking the exams. Subsequently, she went on to College to do a two year Advanced Diploma in Health and Social Care, which she completed last week with 2 Distinctions and a Merit – equivalent to 3 A Levels at grades A A C.
she carries with her the stigma of mental illness as she now moves on to find a job
And yet, despite these amazing successes, she carries with her the stigma of mental illness as she now moves on to find a job. Yet again she is faced with the decision of what to tell people about her mental health issues. She would like to be able to explain why she “only” has 8 GCSEs (her words, not mine!) and; that her experiences have made her a stronger, more determined and empathetic person. But it’s not these positive attributes that people would think of if they saw ‘history of mental illness’ on a job application.
My hope is that, in the future, the stigma of mental illness will not force young people to hide their strengths and talents for fear of what people might say or think about their mental health issues, but rather be proud of who they are and what they have achieved. I want others to see what I see when I look at Jess – not someone who suffers from mental illness, but a brave, determined young woman who I have no doubt will be a huge inspiration to many in the future. I am so very, very proud of her.