Last night I watched the Panorama investigation into the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, (CAMHS), that we have in our country, which is designed to address the mental health needs of our children and young adults when problems do arrive. It saddened me to hear the experiences and stories that the families had to tell, but unfortunately it did not surprise me.
There are many highly qualified, dedicated and committed professionals working within CAMHS, who are themselves let down by a system, that is buckling under the pressure to help so many children and young people who are suffering with mental health problems. They recognise the need to treat these patients at the onset of the issues, but often can’t. Just as cancer patients have a higher chance of survival the earlier the diagnosis and earlier the treatment plan starts, this too can be said with mental health illnesses. These professionals’ hands are tied though as they can only see those that are ‘sick enough’, and ‘sick enough’ quite often means at the point of being suicidal or having attempted already to take their own life.
It is not just the CAMHS system that is breaking, but also our education system for those children who struggle and do not fit into all the boxes that need to be ticked. To get help from the Educational Psychologist a child also has to be ‘bad enough’ to get an assessment. I had a parent ask me about this the other day, as he felt the school’s form, asking for an assessment from an Educational Psychologist, did not show his son’s good points enough. I explained that the negative behaviours are what the school is highlighting as that is where the support is needed, and without it sounding like this, it is possible that he will not get looked at for extra support.
Many parents of clients that I work with spend a lot of time fighting these systems to ensure their children get the care and support they need. Not only is it difficult for them to watch their child get sick, (yes sick, not just ‘being naughty’), but they then feel not listened to by many professionals simply because the systems are unable to cope. Waiting lists can be months long, or the child isn’t old enough to have a diagnosis as yet. The feelings of frustration that these parents have must be immense and I am often humbled by the strength these parents show, trying to cope with everyday life when life is really tough for them.
What also needs to be remembered is that there is a lot of good work going on out there too, to try and help those children and young people to support good mental health. The system may not be perfect, but professionals do keep trying to put the young peoples’ needs first. Cornwall has a new mental health unit opening in Bodmin, hopefully by April 2019. This unit will provide 14 beds for very ill children, who before would have to travel out of the county or be placed alongside adults in mental health units. This has come about with the help of the Invictus Trust, set up by the family of young man called Ben Cowburn who did take his own life, and the NHS.
I qualified as a play therapist over six years ago now and at that time hardly anyone in Cornwall knew what a play therapist was. I saw that the emotional side of children was being neglected in schools simply because the curriculum focus was on the academic side of learning. This focus has got even more intense, GCSE’s have got harder and even what five and six years old are expected to learn has increased. However, alongside this schools do now offer help to some children they feel have other needs, specifically emotional, social and behavioural. The government has pledged £1.4 billion to help improve access to mental health support for children and young adults, with schools being a main focus. There is talk of teachers being given mental health first aid training and having designated lead workers to support these children. What I feel passionately about, is that these people need to have the adequate skills, training and support to be able to help our children and young adults. They will be working with some of the most vulnerable people in our society and so it is important that only the most skilled workers get to work with them. They need to be given the time to build trusting relationships with these children, not just give them an hour slot, and then tell them they need to cope alone. They need to know that these professionals do care and want to see them get better.
Many mental health illnesses do not go away, simply the person learns to cope and live with it. They learn to accept that this is part of who they are, part of their story in life, and that this does not have to be what defines them forever. There are many different types of treatment for many different conditions, but therapy is usually an important part of recovering from mental illness. Therapy comes in many different forms too, and sometimes you need to try out different ones before you find the one that suits you. It is also something that you may need to return to at different points of your life. I explain to many parents that life is like a rollercoaster, there are many ups and downs. It is when life is in that ‘down’ mode that you may need extra support to help you reach back up to the ‘up’. This is nothing to be ashamed of and asking and looking for help should be looked upon as a strength of realising the signs and symptoms of a possible relapse.
In Cornwall, I feel the best places to look for support are with your school and GP, if you feel that your child needs some help. There is also the school nurse that you can contact. The Family Information Service also holds a directory of many statutory, voluntary and private organisations that are there to help families at their time in need. Cornwall has the Early Help Hub, which coordinates the services the Council provides. This includes: parenting programs; family group conferencing; family support; CAMHS and much more. You simply make a referral, (some need a professional to refer you), and they will contact you with the support they can offer.
I choose to work in the private sector because I have the opportunity to work outside of the systems that are under immense pressure. From the experience I have gained as both a teacher and a play therapist I am able to support my clients by putting their needs first. Once I start working with a child, I continue working with them for as long as both myself and the parents feel is necessary. I am not tied to targets of treating a specified number of children to ensure waiting lists go down. I am able to be part of a package of support for these children as I find parents that contact me are those who recognise their children need help, but do not know how to help them. I can help push them in the right direction for support at school, I can give them helpful hints and advice on how to improve their own relationship with their child, I can help make referrals for other services to help support them, but more importantly, I get to know their child, allow them to express themselves in a safe way and help them to recover and gain strength to face whatever may be for them on their journey in life.
No one wants to see a child in pain, especially when that pain is invisible, like many mental health issues. The earlier the support starts, the more likely chance there is of a full recovery. Don’t be afraid to go and ask for help, and keep asking and asking if you feel no one is listening. Your child is the most precious thing you can have and you all deserve to be listened to, supported and helped.