Almost a year ago I read an article on the BBC about mental health being denied to children, on the grounds that they effectively weren’t sick enough. Literally that same day, I found another article, also from the BBC, reporting a 14 year old girl had been found hanged after being turned away from treatment.
In a journal article, Myron Belfer reported that up to 20% of children and adolescents suffer from mental illnesses and that suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. He also reports that there are “substantial gaps in resources for child mental health” (Belfer, 2008).
Suicide being the third leading cause of death among adolescents is a terrifying statistic. Why, then, are children turned away from help? The American Psychological Association states that 15 million children in the U.S.A. meet diagnostic criteria for mental illness, but only 7% receive the appropriate help from health professionals.
According to this graph, the suicide rate has more than doubled since 2007.
My first thought was that maybe children simply didn’t know about mental illness – what it is, how they can get help, who to talk to… So I did an open survey through social media, and asked how well participants thought children are educated about mental illness. Not one single person (out of the 71 that answered) said that they thought children were educated adequately.
These are only five of the 71 responses I had, and the rest all followed a similar pattern. One participant said that “if [they had] known what ‘mental health’ meant, [they would] probably have got help much earlier”, having started feeling the effects of mental illness aged 9. Another response said that children primarily learn about mental health from film, TV and “sensationalist teen fiction that fetishises various aspects of mental illness”.
If children were better educated about mental illness, they may recognise the signs in themselves, and go and chat to their parents, or teacher, or doctor, or anyone. I know that I didn’t speak to anyone until I was 14, four years after I first started feeling the effects of depression, primarily because I didn’t know what it was and I thought that I was crazy, so feared judgement.
But even those who do seek help are still getting turned away.
I asked some people to tell me about their experiences of CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, the adolescent NHS mental health system in the UK). One person said that they were on a waiting list for a year, and despite being suicidal they were dismissed after only three sessions. A mother of a child who sought treatment with CAMHS commented that initially she thought it would be helpful, but said that as soon as the child went, CAMHS “did no good whatsoever”. Her child was sent to six sessions, but the counsellor “was not on the ball, and it seemed she didn’t know what she was doing”. The mother said that the daughter was dismissed after six weeks and it was another four years until her daughter found adequate help (paying “extortionate” amounts of money for private treatment).
With child/adolescent suicide rates drastically rising, why is there still not enough time and effort put into giving them the appropriate care? Is it because they are ‘going through a phase’, as one of my friends with depression was told, or are they ‘attention seeking’ as someone’s family said? Or, are they seriously trying to reach out about a crippling mental health issue and just getting turned away?