‘Talking to other parents was a lifeline’: how a charity supports families through mental health crises

·9-min read

When a child struggles with their mental health, they – and their parents – can struggle to get help. For many, recovery starts with The Children’s Society, whose support groups, wellbeing programmes and drop-in hubs provide an invaluable service

For two weeks Orlando felt he was holding his breath. His 20-year-old son was struggling with depression and addiction and had tried to end his life twice in one week. While they waited for help, he feared it could happen again.

“I took away his keys and his mobile phone and every time he went out for a smoke I went with him so he couldn’t make contact with the dealers. When I was working, my brother was with him; we formed a bubble around him. I was on constant alert, it was like having an infant in the house; in the night I would hear a noise and panic because I didn’t know what he was doing,” he recalls.

It happened last year, during lockdown when CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services – and other bodies were having to provide support online and were stretched to breaking point. Looking back on what he calls their “journey” to recovery, he believes it started through contact with The Children’s Society. It provided consistent support for father and son that continues to this day through Active Families Together, the follow-on project that encourages parents and children to exercise together and take charge of their lives after a crisis.

“Sometimes parents are afraid to share what they are going through because they think they are to blame when their children suffer from mental health conditions,” Orlando says. “I joined one of The Children’s Society’s family support groups. I was sinking at the time and talking to other parents and hearing their stories was a lifeline. I no longer felt alone, like a sore thumb. We supported each other,” he says.

His son, now 21, has stayed off drugs and alcohol and is working full time and Orlando wants to share their story, especially now, with Christmas on the horizon, a celebration that is supposed to spread good cheer, but which he knows can exacerbate despair among those struggling with depression, anxiety or loss. The pandemic, too, has taken its toll on children as schools closed and they were unable to meet up and play with friends. This year more children than ever will be suffering anxiety and depression, according to the society’s annual Good Childhood Report on the welfare of 10- to 17-year-olds across the UK.

Mother sitting by teenage son studying at home
The Children’s Society runs drop-in hubs where young people can get help when they need it without an appointment. Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

“This year our report found 306,000 children – just under 7% – are unhappy with just about every aspect of their lives, such as school, appearance and friends,” says Mark Russell, the charity’s chief executive. “This is a significant rise from 173,000 10 years ago. It’s extremely disturbing because we already have the most unhappy children in Europe, according to our report last year and the really disturbing statistic is that children who report low wellbeing at the age of 14 are significantly more likely to have developed mental health conditions by the age of 17, serious conditions that lead to self-harm and suicide attempts,” he adds.

But while the number of children needing help has grown, support services for them have been cut across local authorities by £3bn between 2010 and 2018, according to research by children’s charities, which also showed the cuts are biggest in the most disadvantaged areas.

It means long waits. For example, according to research by the charity, a child in London referred to CAMHS in early November this year is not likely to get an appointment until August or September next year. It runs drop-in hubs where children and young people can get help when they need it without an appointment. “We need hubs like this in every area of the country,” says Russell. “We help young people feel good about themselves. Especially now, with the effects of the pandemic, wellbeing drop-ins like ours are vital in making sure children can talk about their anxieties and not give up on themselves and hope,” he adds.

Orlando, who lives in Essex, says they were lucky – both because of the support from the Children’s Society and also because his extended family could afford to pool resources to pay for his son to be treated at a private rehabilitation clinic. “It was hard to know what was going on because he was a great son, happy and fun and good company, but there was a dark side as well. He was drinking a lot of alcohol and I put that down to being a teenager and then I found out he was smoking marijuana,” he says. “Then one of his friends got in touch about what my son had just posted on social media about feeling suicidal and reaching out for help. I was at work and contacted my brother, who rushed round and found him. It was a pivotal moment when it hit me that there was a problem bigger than both of us. He was using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, to suppress his emotions,” he says.

“We were trying to get help, but it was like driving down a road and continually hitting speed bumps. There were different phone numbers to call and video calls with different people until I found The Children’s Society on the internet. A lady called Anna was very comforting and understanding and kept with us – we felt there was someone on our side who knew what to do and we were no longer on our own,” he says.

“My family said I needed help too and Anna was very insistent that I should join one of their family support groups, so I did, a bit reluctantly. I thought it was my son that needed help, not me, because I was a strong character and could get through it, but I was wrong.

“Through sharing our testimony with other parents and partners at different stages I learned many things; we spoke the same language and it was OK to not be OK for that two hours a week. Sharing with like-minded people gave me some power back,” he says.

“After my son came out of the clinic we were starting to sink a bit. Again, Anna came to our help, suggesting the Active Families Together programme. We did yoga and other exercises together and talked about eating and living a healthy life and Richard Moss, who runs the programme, still keeps in touch and is a fantastic role model for my son,” he adds. “We got all this from The Children’s Society and it didn’t cost us a penny.”

‘I got stressed when I couldn’t get the work done’: experiencing depression as a child

Meet Charlie and it’s hard to believe that this time two years ago he wasn’t enjoying the Christmas festivities with other children, but holed up in his bedroom, refusing to come out because of a deep, dark depression. Even his many pets could not cheer him up because of problems he was having at school. Now the 12-year-old has written a book about his experience that he hopes will be read by other children struggling as he did and also by David Walliams, his favourite author.

“It’s about a boy who is really busy, but he doesn’t know why and he is asking all his friends but they don’t know either. It’s kind of how I felt,” he says. “I hope it will help other children who read it. I got stressed when I couldn’t get the work done and did things that annoyed the teachers. One of them told my classmates to record it on a Post-it note every time I did something wrong. I liked singing and dancing and one of the teaching assistants told my friend that I wasn’t really singing, just miming. They all thought it was funny. It really upset me,” he says.

Related: ‘We talked about grooming – I didn’t know what that was’: the charity protecting children from sexual exploitation and abuse

Kate, his mother, is trying to get a private educational special needs assessment for her son so he can go back to school with classroom support. She has been told that it could take years to get one through the state system. Meanwhile, she is home educating him.

“We tried a couple of counsellors the GP recommended, but they didn’t help, then the GP told us about Beam, The Children Society’s emotional health and wellbeing drop-in service for young people in Shropshire, near where we live,” she says. “It was our saviour because Charlie had been in such a dark place and the people at Beam seemed to connect with him immediately, they were fantastic,” she says.

Charlie remembers it well, especially the present of a little bottle of aftershave he was surprised to be given at Beam last Christmas. “They gave me a present and I still have it,” he says. “They helped me to write down things that happened, to make me feel better about it. It was people bullying me mainly and the stress when I couldn’t get work done,” he adds. “They were really nice and understanding. I told them about the Post-its and the teacher who said I just mimed. They said that I must do what I enjoy and get back to singing and dancing, because I had to think about me and what I like to do, not other people. They said don’t worry about your work, worry about yourself,” he says.

This year will be different, says his mother. “At Christmas he was at rock bottom, he had given up on life and it was horrible because he was only 11. It wasn’t a normal Christmas, we were walking on eggshells. When he got that little present it changed him, it made him feel special. We owe a lot to the Beam centre and I wish there could be one in every area to help children like Charlie,” she says.

The Children’s Society help children and their families at crisis point. Donate this Christmas, and you could restore hope to a family like Orlando’s.

• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.

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