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Children And Mental Health: My Carefree Child Developed Generalised Anxiety Disorder

12/09/2014 15:02 | Updated 20 May 2015

My happy-go-lucky teen has become overcome with anxiety

This time last year, our happy-go-lucky third child departed for secondary school. Confident, carefree and smiley, she was eager to join her older sister.

Within months, she had developed generalised anxiety disorder (see below) and it's only now, 12 months later, that we are on the road to getting our daughter back.

When you have a baby, you are overwhelmed with an overload of information. Feeding, sleeping, weaning, walking, potty training – the list of things to master is endless. But there's info out there and it's easy to chat, sometimes even to strangers, about what worked for them and what may help you and your baby.

But when you child gets bigger, and you are faced with something around which there is still a huge amount of stigma – it can be a lonely, frightening and altogether scarier affair.

This week Dame Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer, published her annual report. What she had to say rang all too chillingly familiar with me.

Her report highlighted the greater need for earlier treatment for children and young people with mental health problems.

"Half of adult mental illness starts before the age of 15, and 75 per cent by the age of 18. Unless young people get help, they risk a life of problems including unemployment, substance misuse, crime and antisocial behaviour.

"Under-investment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically," she said.

This is so true.

Our daughter – let's call her Hannah – came home on day two of secondary school, and announced with steely determination, 'I don't like that school and I'm not going back'.

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As I suspect many parents would have done, I simply waved aside her anxiety with a dismissive platitude that it was early days and she would be fine. But she wasn't fine, and it became very clear very quickly that she had gone into some kind of unexpected freefall.

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No amount of talking, cajoling, comforting or indeed, ignoring, could jog her out of her own feeling of impending doom.

I don't know anyone else who has a child who has suddenly entered the world of mental health issues.

Or at least, I may do, but you can bet I don't know who they are.

Had Hannah broken her leg, developed severe tonsillitis or been diagnosed with a wheat or nut allergy, I'm pretty sure I could have turned to numerous friends and family for advice.

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But when your child tells you they want to kill themselves, or they don't deserve to be happy or they don't feel anything but hate and anger – there aren't many people you find yourself sharing this information with.

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And if it's something that as a family you have never come across, then it's a real case of the blind leading the blind.

Something that really struck me is that I've since found out one in 10 children in the UK aged five to 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder.

That equates to around three children in every average size class.

And even more worrying – and a statistic that backs up Dame Sally's findings - is that 95 per cent of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder.

Why then was it so difficult to access speedy help which may have prevented us finally having to remove our daughter from school and placing her in a new environment, which could have simply exacerbated the situation, but was in fact, the only option left to us?

What we did

In our case, the initial approaches to the school were met with robust rebuttals, that Hannah was just having teething problems and that there wasn't a problem.

Deaf to my pleas that she was demonstrating increasingly erratic behaviour at home and also on the journey to and from school as reported to me by my other daughter, I went away to lick my wounds, afraid I would be labelled a helicopter mum.

I even bought a joke book and left it lying around Hannah's bedroom. I thought it might cheer her up.

Now I shudder to recollect this clumsy attempt - one of so many tactics we tried, including sending Hannah to a counsellor.

This particular person seemed more interested in her own problems than helping our daughter articulate hers, but we were desperate to solve an issue, which we were way out of our depth on.

We invited Hannah's friends round but would have to cancel as she refused to let anyone into her room and we tried the 'she'll wear herself out eventually and we'll all be back to normal' tactic.

But when my sister dropped in unexpectedly one evening while Hannah was having a complete tantrum about homework, and was horrified at the scene that beset her, I knew it was time to up the anti.

And this is where we really struggled.

As a journalist I am used to asking questions and not taking no for an answer. I'm equally used to digging deep to find answers and yes, I suppose getting what I want in difficult situations – persuasive but polite conversation is a skill I like to think I've honed.

But this was something else altogether.

Numerous meetings with school (including a mortifying moment for Hannah when she was publicly hooked out of class by the school counsellor) and a number of visits to the GP, sometimes with Hannah and sometimes without, proved fruitless for weeks.

But by Christmas, when our older daughter reported she could no longer be responsible for accompanying her sister to and from school, I went to see the GP again.

At this stage Hannah was still just about holding it together at school, but at home family life was reduced to a hotbed of tears, closed doors (her siblings kept well away) and sobs.

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My husband and I felt, for the first times in our parenting lives, utterly and completely useless.

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One GP (because of course these days you never see the same one twice) told Hannah she must simply pull herself together and 'stop being silly'.

I will never, ever forget that moment. My husband visibly stiffened as I took a deep intake of breath and declared my intention, quite calmly, not to leave the surgery until she could produce some kind of plan.

She eventually and reluctantly agreed to write us a referral to CAMHS (the NHS child and adolescent mental health services) but since it was Christmas we had to wait until after the holidays for an emergency appointment.

By the time we took a sleep-deprived, withdrawn and apprehensive Hannah to see the specialist, our daughter was finally unable to keep herself composed and it all came tumbling out. But even then we struggled to get the psychologist to grasp the gravity of the situation.

There were a number of other children in the waiting room and I felt this woman just needed to get through her list of patients.

Looking back at this moment, Dame Sally's view that under-investment in mental health services, particularly for young people, simply does not make sense economically is all too shudderingly true.

In economic terms to the NHS alone, time and money spent on our daughter now, would surely be less than if this progressed into adulthood.

At Hannah's second meeting with the CAMHS lady, she was brutally honest with us:

"Your daughter is, for whatever reason, in a toxic situation," she said. "My advice, if it's possible, is that you remove her from an environment that is clearly having such a detrimental effect on her mental health, look around for a different school, and consider a course of CBT."

At the time I thought she was abrupt, rude and lacking in compassion, but by that stage I was pretty run down myself and would have tried anything.

So to cut a still pretty long story short, we embraced the advice and went for it, and finally, after our own long winter of discontent, we turned a very small corner and Lady Luck finally appeared.

We were incredibly lucky to manage to get Hannah into a different school nearer to home, and there staff simply told her she merely had to turn up each day. Nothing more was required of her – no homework, no expectations were made of her at all.

Article continues below this video.

Stress and Depression in Teenagers

And we, rightly or wrongly, turned down a wait on the NHS and because we could, Hannah went off to see a lady who I now owe not only my daughter's sanity to, but mine as well.

Our daughter has completed a 12 week course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see below) and is working hard on maintaining this new state of mind.

Crucially, Hannah now has a set of strategies for coping with change and stress, which will hopefully serve her for life. And she is learning to live in the present – neither brooding on the past or worrying about the future.

I just wish someone had listened to us sooner.

What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder?

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can be defined as a disorder in which the sufferer feels in a constant state of high anxiety and is often known as 'chronic worrying' or a 'free floating' anxiety condition.

People who suffer with GAD often resolve one issue, but no sooner has this been done when another worry pops up. Racing thoughts, loss of concentration, and an inability to focus are also

characteristic of this condition.

We all suffer with worry from time to time, but the thing that makes GAD different from 'normal worry' is that the worry is prolonged (it lasts for more than six months), and the level of worry is out of proportion to the risk.

For example, a child with GAD may feel the need to do all their homework to absolute perfection for fear of getting into trouble, and will spend far more time on it than is at all necessary. Or they may think somebody at school hates them, and is telling everyone else to, just because the child accidently bumped into them.

These thoughts can be described as 'catastrophising,' or jumping to the worst possible conclusion.

GAD is a particularly difficult condition to live with, as it is constantly on the sufferer's mind – there is no respite as the anxiety is not tied to a specific situation or event. It can cause problems with sleep, ability to maintain a job or do any work, as well as impact on close relationships.

What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.

It is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression, but can be useful for other mental and physical health problems.

CBT cannot remove your problems, but it can help you deal with them in a more positive way. It is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.

CBT aims to help you crack this cycle by breaking down overwhelming problems into smaller parts and showing you how to change these negative patterns to improve the way you feel.

Unlike some other talking treatments, CBT deals with your current problems, rather than focusing on issues from your past. It looks for practical ways to improve your state of mind on a daily basis.

Top tips for talking to your children about anxiety:

Seize the moment – it doesn't have to be a formal interview. Chat over a meal, in the car, as you do the supermarket shop – keep it light and casual. You don't have to spend hours talking.

Mental health is no less important than our physical health. Encourage your child to talk about her feelings, and if a certain situation has really upset her, explore it with her. What might she do to feel better about it? How might she resolve it? How does she learn to manage to keep it in proportion? How does that worrying thought make her feel, and how does it bear on their actions?

Show him strategies for getting away from it all and chilling. Talking, exercise, me time, time away from social media and homework pressures are all positives which will help them keep a balance.

Keep it casual – avoid jargon and if you have to dumb down, so be it. Let her know nothing can shock you and that you are there for her. Equally, don't let her take up all your time going over the same issue. When she is in a negative circle of worry, agree to discuss it and then move on.

Don't make it too personal. If you suspect your child is worrying about something, but doesn't want to open up, generalise and hypothesise instead. Or talk about a character from a book or a TV programme he likes. "How would X respond to this?"

Let him know it's OK to find out more together. Look at some websites – there is a lot of information out there and they may be especially comforted to read other young peoples' stories about their own mental health issues.

For further information and help visit Anxiety UK, the Time to Change campaign and Young Minds.

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