Imagine your normally happy child becomes withdrawn or unusually troubled. As a parent you spot it first in their pained expression. It’s a look that can only be described as deeply despairing. Behind young eyes lies a mental health battleground and your child is the casualty.
You’re worried. You’ve tried everything, but there are no words, no actions that can fix your child. So you go to the GP. The GP asks a few questions, looks concerned, and says she’ll refer you to a team better equipped to help - Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). It marks the beginning of a long and arduous journey that will take you and your child to the edge and back.
I’ve been there. In 2016, our son Reuben became unwell and was diagnosed with severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In a matter of no time he unravelled and was unable to leave the house. As a family, we were brought to our knees, unable to control or stop the OCD that had hijacked our beautiful boy. What made matters worse by far, was that Reuben had to wait nine months to get the right level of treatment for his OCD. He spent six months in hospital and missed a year of school. It was the darkest of times. As a father, I felt utterly helpless.
Since going public about Reuben’s condition, so many parents have got in touch, with similar stories of long waits and struggles within the CAMHS system. I realised we weren’t the only ones. Frustrated by more and more stories of children being left to spiral, I decided to get to the bottom of it with the BBC programme, Panorama.
What we found was at best CAMHS is a service that is struggling, and at worst, one that is ‘not fit for purpose’. I don’t blame the staff. They are the overworked, short staffed and often underpaid. Add to that the increased number of kids diagnosed with mental health issues. There’s no point raising mental health awareness if the services are so stretched.
Every time I receive a tweet, an Instagram message or an email from a worried parent, my heart sinks, because I know how terrifying it is to watch your child spiral with a mental health illness. 24 hours in the home of a kid badly struggling is traumatic. It affects the whole family - the mums and dads, but don’t forget the brothers and sisters too. Months of that can rip a family apart. All the while your child is edging at a snails pace up the waiting list.
During filming I spoke to one mother who was told the wait for her child to be treated was 18 months. Had her child had to wait that long for treatment for a broken leg it would be headline news. But it seems our expectations of help for a child with a broken mind are completely different.
When Reuben left hospital he vowed to make a difference. He said he didn’t want anyone else going through the same long wait, while their condition deteriorates. He was evangelical about it and incredibly open with his school friends about his experience. Still, it was a hard decision to talk openly about Reuben’s struggles on Panorama - to revisit the pain and open old wounds.
With Reuben now well, it’s easy to forget just how sick he was. Two years ago my wife and I filmed Reuben during one of his OCD episodes, to show CAMHS just how bad things had got at home. At a time when social media is full of pictures of people and their children looking and doing their best, showing your child at their most vulnerable is a difficult thing to do. We thought long and hard before including this footage in the Panorama episode. In the end it was Reuben’s choice. His decision to go ahead shows just how far he’s come. He really hopes it will go some way to making a difference. He wants to let other young people who are struggling know that they are not alone. You can get better.
Watching Reuben’s battle with OCD over the past two years has made me realise how strong and brave our young people are. But while they fight, we as parents can only watch and wait. The sad thing is successful treatment for many of these conditions is possible with the right approach. For example, in many cases of OCD, 20 weekly hour-long specialist sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can transform a child, and give them the tools to lead a normal life. It’s a similar story with other mental health issues - the right treatment at an early stage can change a life. We know that half of all long term adult mental health problems start by the age of 14. A weak CAMHS is bad for society, not just now, but for generations to come.
Filming this Panorama taught me a lot of things. It made me realise we were the lucky ones because my son eventually got good OCD treatment, initially as an inpatient, and then as an outpatient at the The Michael Rutter Centre, at the Maudsley Hospital in south London. But there aren’t enough Michael Rutter Centres for OCD. And there aren’t enough equivalent specialist centres, and skilled staff in other areas of mental illness. It took a long time to find them but the psychotherapists who worked with Reuben have given him the life OCD stole from him. I can’t thank them enough.
I believe strongly that when a young person is courageous enough to tell us about their mental health issues, we have to be ready to help straight away.
Panorama airs on BBC1 at 8.30, Monday 24 September