My first introduction to the world of mental illness was in a chaotic, noisy and brightly-lit A&E waiting room. I had been dealing with anorexia for about six months by this point, and things had reached crisis point. I was having heart palpitations, chest pains and experiencing dizzy spells and black spots in my vision. My joints had seized up, and my bones ached due to the lack of nutrition, so much so that walking and even writing was painful and exhausting. We know that children and teenagers with eating disorders reach emaciation much quicker than adults, as their bodies are smaller and have less reserves.
I am quite open about my eating disorder, and history of anxiety and depression, but I rarely mention to people that I had to go to A&E for emergency support when I was 15. It always sounds so dramatic and I always feel guilty that I took up a hospital when there are probably people with eating disorders out there who needed it much more than me. But reading the recent statistics stating that A & E admissions for teenagers experiencing mental illness have tripled in the past eight years inspired me to tell my story.
I had been diagnosed for about two months prior to the A & E admission, and had been seeing a counsellor and having my weight monitored by a nurse. But things were deteriorating, they weren’t getting better. I got in the car one Saturday morning to go and see my counsellor, but my mum drove straight past the counselling centre and onto the local hospital. She parked up outside and said, “You can either go back to your counsellor and pretend for another week that things are improving and you’re getting better, or you can go in here and ask for the help you need.”
It was not an easy choice, I was completely paralysed; going into hospital sounded terrifying, I didn’t know what would happen when I walked through those doors. I knew it would mean gaining weight, speaking to doctors and nurses with the power to make decisions about me that could involve a lengthy stay in an eating disorder unit away from friends and family. Going back to my counsellor was a safe, easy option, I could talk about how depressed I was feeling, walk away and pretend to eat more in the coming week. But I was stuck. Stuck and exhausted. Anorexia had my life firmly in its grip and I had to accept that this monster was much bigger than I was and I couldn’t face this alone. And to be completely honest, I was worried about dying. With a huge sense of defeat that I agreed to go in.
When we walked in the receptionist asked what the issue was, and when we told her she smiled and told us to wait. I have no idea how long we waited for, it could have been 20 minutes or three hours, I can’t remember. I just remember being completely exhausted and just wanting to sleep the whole time we were in the waiting room. One of the doctors called me in eventually, she took all my vital signs including pulse and blood pressure and checked me over thoroughly. She told me I was ‘pink and healthy’ and should come back on Monday when the mental health team would be in. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She asked to speak to a senior doctor, who upon seeing my weight decided to admit me immediately for further testing. I spent another seven days in hospital, having all sorts of tests and scans, and being assessed by various mental health professionals and entered outpatient treatment within two weeks of discharge.
My time in hospital was lonely, long and frightening. A&E is noisy, smells funny and is overcrowded. It is not the place for teenagers in mental health crisis and should only be used when strictly necessary. Unfortunately, as more and more Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have their budgets slashed, and waiting times increase it is becoming increasingly likely that more young people will end up in A&E during their first episode of mental illness, as they cannot access services at an earlier stage.
You can support Young Mind’s campaign for a new era in children’s mental health here: https://act.youngminds.org.uk/join-our-fight-new-era-young-peoples-mental-health