Pink & Blue Mummyland

Pink and blue parenting through pink and blue moods….

BBC Three Mental Health Season

I’ve been watching the BBC Three mental health season programmes with interest. I’ve actually been quite impressed – most of the programmes have been well rounded and informative, not the freak shows I feared they would be. And although I count myself a bit of an expert (in the layperson sense of the word), I found myself learning quite a bit.

My only frustration with the series is just how ‘young person’ focused it is. Every programme I’ve watched – and I’ve seen most of them I think – has concentrated on mental health issues in teenagers or people in their early twenties. “Don’t Call Me Crazy” looked at life in an adolescent psychiatric unit, and “Failed By The NHS” followed the stories of young adults crossing over from child and adolescent services to adult services. “Extreme OCD Camp” should have been called “Extremely Young OCD Camp”, and even the programme that seemed to promise a look at the long term, chronic nature of some mental illnesses – the programme about Frank Bruno’s battle with bipolar – was really about his daughter.

I not saying that there was anything intrinsically wrong with all the information in the programmes. The information was accurate and well delivered, and will, I think, have opened people’s eyes to the severity of the issue. Whilst following the Twitter feed #extremeocdcamp, a number of people had the reaction ‘I never knew it could be so bad, so controlling, so debilitating – how on earth do people cope?’ There has definitely been some awareness raising.

My concern is that these programmes are encouraging the idea that mental health issues are somehow teenaged by definition, and that they are something you grow out of. It’s great to raise awareness of these conditions, but not once has it been suggested that most of these conditions are chronic, and rarely disappear just through ageing into a new decade.

In some ways, “Failed By The NHS” has been the most painful of all these programmes to watch. A group of young people not long out of school or college feel they have been failed by the NHS – either by GPs, or by A&E, or by CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services). But nothing was said about the general mental health services. As someone who does to some extent feel let down by the NHS, I wonder how long it will be before boring old chronically unwell adults are given some sort of platform to vent their frustrations.

A risk of sounding soap-boxy and woe-is-me, let me use my own experiences as an example. At 19 I went into a psychiatric unit feeling suicidal. I was in a room with three other women, one of whom had night terrors, because there wasn’t money to staff the single rooms further down the corridor. I was put on medications without knowing what they were for, and offered no therapy of any kind. I stayed there for as little time as possible and lied to get out because it was more unbearable being in hospital than being in the world. The hospital was in Durham, where I was at university, and when I was discharged I decided to go back to my parents house in London. It was seven months before I was seen by a psychiatrist as an outpatient, and a further eight before I had any therapy. I was never, in any of that time, offered a social worker, CPN, or counselling. As a young person, I was seriously failed by the NHS, at a time when I didn’t have the confidence, energy, or presence of mind to stand up for myself and fight my corner.

But fast forward a few years to the present. Following the depressive episode I had after MicroBob’s birth, I had so much difficulty persuading anyone that I wasn’t being treated correctly that I paid to see a private consultant who was a specialist in Bipolar Disorder. He offered me a two hour assessment, involving questionnaires, blood tests and interviews, by the end of which the diagnosis was watertight. Since taking the report to my NHS consultant, he and I have been ploughing through a massive medications change to swap my high dose antidepressants for a preventative mood stabiliser. I see Dr K every four weeks, which doesn’t feel like enough, but can’t be increased without a huge reduction in his patient load. When I saw him a couple of weeks ago, he informed me that he would be on holiday all of August, so I wouldn’t be able to see anyone until September. And his closing advice was to ‘only phone the crisis team in a REAL emergency’ because, since no-one is covering his absence, they would be the ones picking up the slack, and would therefore be inundated. I could broach the subject with a CPN, but as I am not suicidal or psychotic, I don’t qualify for one. I would consider talking to my psychologist about it, but nine months after my referral I still haven’t seen anyone. It’s probably worth saying that Dr K completely agrees with the other doctor’s diagnosis – he just didn’t have the time needed to make it himself.

Both in a broad way 13 years ago, and in a more specific way these last few weeks, I feel let down by the NHS. Normally I’m the one fighting their corner – I have seen how fast doctors can run in an emergency, and know that most doctors are working huge numbers of hours to get everyone cared for. I had excellent medical care when I had severe pre-eclampsia and had to have an emergency caesarean followed by ICU for me and my baby, and when I seriously broke my arm four years ago, I was treated as quickly as possible and operated on within a day. When I was in too much pain I was given morphine, because my opinion was respected with regards to how much pain was too much.

So why are my physical health and mental health experiences so different? Why is it that my broken arm is treated swiftly and with dignity, whereas my broken brain is ignored for as long as possible? I would honestly like to know. I would like to understand how the NHS can defend the care that mentally ill people get (or don’t get), and how they can justify the decisions to put so little of their budget into mental health care. One in four people in the UK will experience a diagnosable mental health problem in any given year (stats here). That’s 25% of us. That’s huge. So why does so little of the government money pot for health go into making our brains better?

Answers on a postcard please…

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