‘We need help’ – one grandmother’s heartbreaking plea for urgent support

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the desperate state of mental health provision in this country and asked you to write in with your experiences of accessing help via the NHS. You responded with heartbreaking honesty, and I am still wading through the emails as I write. But a familiar theme kept cropping up, from parents and carers struggling to get treatment for their children. I wanted to reprint one particular query, from a woman I shall call Catherine because her plight is unfortunately typical of what so many are going through at the moment.

“I am writing in a state of desperate concern for my 15-year-old grandson, who has quite suddenly changed from a loving and nice natured boy into someone unrecognisable. He frequently threatens to kill himself and has even attempted self-harm. He says he hates everyone and everything. He is very bright but is displaying all the serious symptoms of ADHD. We do not dare go to sleep for fear that something truly terrible is going to happen. Living like this is having a severe impact on our health and stress levels. This is particularly hard on my daughter as she has to hold down a demanding job. We are exhausted. We cannot go on like this.

“My daughter speaks to CAMHS [Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services] on an almost daily basis but they cannot refer him to get help for three years, by which time he will be an adult. His school has been wonderful and does all it can. But he is refusing to get up and go in. Our only recourse would be to seek help privately but it is beyond our means. To make matters worse, until my grandson can get a referral he cannot receive treatment or any medication – which apparently GPs are unable to do or provide.

“It is heartbreaking to see such a lovely boy so sad and changed so much, and to see my bubbly daughter changed into a rag. What can we do? We need urgent help.”

With Catherine’s permission, I got in touch with Young Minds, an organisation that provides mental health support to children and advice to parents and carers. Stevie Goulding, the parents’ helpline manager there, came back with some excellent advice that I hope will help Catherine, her grandson, and anyone else trying to navigate this path at the moment. Goulding told me that such a dilemma was not uncommon. 

“We often receive calls from those in similar circumstances because CAMHS is so stretched,” she says. “As hard as it is when you have been told to wait a long time for the help that a child needs, we would encourage this grandmother to maintain a relationship with CAMHS. It is important to keep a log of all the interactions you have with CAMHS and other services, so that agreed actions can be documented and followed up.”

If a child is actively feeling suicidal and is at risk of harm, you should call 999 immediately so that they can receive urgent support. If a child is already under the care of services and has a crisis plan in place, then families should also use contacts listed in that plan as they will be local. CAMHS should always be told about this – experts who know the system say that, sadly, suicide attempts are often what clinches a referral, particularly if a young person ends up in A&E or is sectioned. Suicidal feelings should not, of course, be the benchmark for treatment, but if you do have to wait some time, YoungMinds suggest using websites such as PAPYRUS, The Mix, MeeToo and Kooth, all of which offer free, anonymous support for young people experiencing poor mental health.

Goulding suggests finding out what support your local authority can offer. “They often have a range of services and provisions available for children who might have special educational needs,” she adds. “It is possible this young person would also be eligible for an Educational Health Care Plan, which helps those with special educational needs and their families to get extra support. Families or young people themselves, if they are over 16, can ask for an assessment for one of these plans through the local authority.”

Goulding says that the pandemic has left many children struggling with school attendance, so Catherine should not feel that her grandson is alone in this. “You can find lots of advice on the YoungMinds website about how to support your child if they are saying they can’t go to school, including mirroring the school day at home, keeping to a routine, and making your child or grandchild engage in some level of educational activity, even if it something as simple as watching a documentary.”

Goulding says that the most important thing is to get specialist advice – the YoungMinds parents’ helpline is a good starting point for this, as cases can be referred to their team of professional advisers for more expert help. Finally, Goulding says that it is absolutely imperative that all members of the family are able to look after themselves and their own mental health – after all, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Again, the helpline can provide advice on how to do this.

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