On average 4 young people every day are admitted to A&E due to mental health problems and yet between 55 – 65% are not given a psychiatric assessment or any form of psychiatric help. Between 2012 and 2016 GP’s referred less than 50 % of adolescents to mental health services (or CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) once their mental health impacted on their physical well-being. A pledge was made by George Lamb back in 2014 to improve the mental health system within the UK; however despite this, spending on the NHS mental health system continued to fail for the second year in a row and 2000 psychiatric beds were cut between 2012 and 2014. The amount of people affected by the failure in the system continues to grow in 2017. People now no longer feel they are able to speak openly and honestly about their mental health, not only due to the lack of psychiatric support but also because of the reactions they feel they will receive from people.
In 2015, my life became impacted by the effects of our failing mental health system. For 3 years I lived in silence with anorexia nervosa and depression. Believing that I wasn’t ‘ill enough’ to ask for help I bottled my issues from both my family and my friends. However, throughout my GCSE’s my illness exacerbated, my intake reduced drastically and I developed an extreme addiction to exercise. Having become a coping mechanism for me to deal with the pressure of school as well as problems at home, I had become so mentally unwell that the physical effects started to become apparent to my family. Despite my reluctance and denial that anything was wrong, I agreed to attend a doctor’s appointment at my local medical centre. There I confessed my problems with food and how I was feeling to both my mum and my GP, I was weighed for the first time and given a blood test and despite a significant amount of weight loss and my white blood cells being low I was told that I could “turn this around”. I left the doctor’s office with no form of support other than a follow up appointment 8 weeks later. I was furious, I went home with the confirmation in my head that what I was doing was fine as I wasn’t a proper concern.
The next 8 weeks made up the worst summer of my life, I further reduced my intake, my exercise addiction became even more extreme and I went on to develop other obsessive and compulsive traits. My family and friends continued to become increasingly concerned, however I was still convinced I wasn’t ‘ill enough’ or ‘a real threat’.
By the time summer had ended I was physically and mentally the worst I had ever been. I started a new school to complete my A-levels where I was convinced I could have a ‘fresh start’, I had never been so unhappy in my life. Shortly after school began I was taken to the follow up appointment with my GP where I was weighed, after 8 weeks I had lost another significant amount of weight and was immediately referred to CAMHS. I never met with CAMHS, my case was referred to Beechcroft psychiatric unit in Belfast. I was told my first appointment would be a week later where there would be a meeting to discuss my care. Once there, I was told I had no choice but to be pulled from education, after only 3 weeks at a new school, and start emergency treatment for anorexia.
The next three months became very emotional and very difficult for both me and my family. After 12 weeks of bed rest, blood tests, bone scans, ECG’s and therapy I finally became physically healthy enough to return to school. I continued to attend outpatient therapy sessions at Beechcroft for a year. I returned to school in the middle of December, even though I was reunited with friends I still felt that I couldn’t tell others the real reason for my absence. I knew people would have their questions and I always avoided answering or gave people another excuse.
Once I turned 18 I was discharged from CAMHS and referred to the adult mental health service. After my faith in the NHS having already failed once before, I was gutted when my care and support system was inconsistent once again. At the beginning of 2017 I was referred to Woodstock eating disorders service where I was told I would receive weekly therapy as an outpatient of the service. After attending a couple of weekly sessions, I received a phone call from the service telling me that one of my weekly appointments would have to be rearranged and I would be contacted in a few days to discuss a day that suited. I failed to hear from the service for nearly 8 weeks despite being told I would receive weekly therapy and was only contacted once I expressed my wishes to leave the service and find consistent and weekly therapy. At the end of April I discharged myself from Woodstock eating disorders service against medical advice and now continue to attend private therapy.
I now no longer hold any shame of what I have been through. I openly and honestly speak to my friends and those close to me about my struggles with mental health. Society still continues to uphold the stigma that mental health is too taboo to talk about, that we should just live with our struggles in silence or that no matter what anyone is going through there will always be someone worse than them. My advice to young people who are struggling to ask for help is to never think you are not worthy of treatment or support, everyone’s mental health is just as valuable and important. I am only one example of the young people in Northern Ireland who continue to be affected by both the stigma of mental health and the lack of professional support within the NHS. Today young people need to feel secure enough to speak out about the struggles they have or anything they may be dealing with, they need to have hope that they can recover and that they are worthy of recovery.
As of recently I have teamed up with Action Mental Health, a charity which aims to destigmatise speaking out about mental health issues as well as tackling the lack of professional psychiatric treatment. Teaming up with the charity has allowed me to share my own story, not in the hope that I get sympathy from people or to claim that I have a ‘sob story’. I am now able to proudly share my experience to be a person for so many young people in Northern Ireland to make them realise that our system needs to change. We can no longer wait until adolescents or young people are dangerously ill cause they ‘don’t meet a criteria’ or ‘they aren’t an emergency case’ until they receive treatment. The mental health system within the NHS needs to become a priority for funding. Treatment needs to be accessible for young people so the hope of recovery and getting better is not lost. I want to continue to share my experience to make young people realise that it’s okay to speak out about problems they may be dealing with.
Being able to speak openly and honestly about my issues has completely changed me from the person I was 2 years ago - I am now a person who is no longer embarrassed to speak out about what they have struggled with, I am now a person who wants nothing more than to help others and make them realise that recovery can happen, I am now a person who wants to make mental health a topic of conversation that no one should feel awkward about or think of as taboo, I am now a person wants to help others access treatment that they and this country so desperately needs. Changes need to be made and they need to be made now, and I will continue to do my part to ensure that we move in the right direction so that one day the stigmatisation of mental health and the lack of professional help will no longer be a challenge for the young people in Northern Ireland.
Ciana is 18 years old and from Belfast. She is currently studying for her A Levels at Methodist College Belfast.