HOW I COPED WHEN MY DAUGHTER BECAME SUICIDAL

Suzanne empowers mums to partner their kids through mental health issues.

With anxiety and mental health issues on the increase among Generation Z, parents are struggling to support their teenage and young adult children – especially post-Covid. And for me, this is something I know about only too well since my daughter Issy became suicidal in 2016.

A creative, sensitive girl, she was badly bullied at school around age 13 and, with little support from the school, Issy just retreated into herself. It was the start of a slow descent, but at the time we just thought ‘’Oh she’s just being a teenager, she’ll be fine when she gets out of this phase”. She became very jumpy and withdrawn, slept badly and didn’t want to talk to anyone. She wouldn’t even go in a shop, go out with friends or attend a family event. Issy was constantly looking to me for reassurance. It was very isolating and I felt like there was no one I could talk to. I couldn’t share it with my friends. There was so much shame and self-blame.

And at first I just thought I could love her through it and she’d be fine. She’d have highs and lows and I would be her constant and she’d be OK. But in fact It was the tip of the iceberg. Soon she was struggling to go to school, hardly eating and wouldn’t leave the house. One day I said to the school nurse, “What am I going to do?” It hadn’t even occurred to me at that point just how bad things were.

I spoke to my GP who was helpful but informed me that a referral to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) could mean a three or four month wait even to get assessed. Knowing we needed immediate help, he suggested we see him every week. After a while Issy went in to see him on her own.

And that was when she disclosed to our doctor that she planned to end her life in the next day or so. When he told me, my life changed forever. How could this be? As I rang her father I really struggled. Saying the words out loud that your beautiful child intends to end her life is a gut-wrenching and surreal experience and we both broke down. She didn’t want to go through with it, she told the doctor, but just had to escape the pain. This need became greater than her connection to us. It was terrifying, but just one of many low points as we were to discover.

One of the things I’ve learned is that we have massive power to influence our child’s experience of mental illness and to reinforce the need for professionals to give the child what they need. Fortunately we managed to get fantastic care for Issy straightaway. She was quickly referred to a psychiatrist and given medication – it was against my better judgement but in fact was the right thing.

Our daughter was out of school for two years. She was chronically depressed and attempted suicide, which was terrifying. In fact she was suicidal for probably about six months. When the psychiatrist told us they weren’t seeing enough progress and wanted to admit her, I said no. I knew this would be too frightening for Issy, so we agreed to have sessions with CAMHS every day.

It was probably the darkest time of my life. You’ve got all this love and compassion for your child, you want to help them, but it’s not something you can fix. For young people so many of their mental health issues come from a lack of control over their lives and their destiny. And you blame yourself, thinking “What did I do to cause this to happen? Why didn’t I spot the signs? Why didn’t I do something sooner?” Being a mum is a really important thing for me and a big part of my identity and I felt this time I’d failed. I thought back to past incidents and blamed myself for the way things turned out.

But obviously the main focus was getting her well while dealing with my own emotions around what was going on. It was a lonely time and apart from my husband I didn’t even feel I could talk about it with my family, because when I started to talk, it was overwhelming. I’d be flooded with emotion and my family had no frame of reference for what I was describing to them – that our daughter was depressed, medicated and under psychiatric care. And I guess I feared being judged.

So I just retreated. A couple of friends checked it on me, but that was it. I didn’t feel I had any support at all in the way that I needed it. No one who could empathise and show me that there’s hope. It was very isolating.

And one day, sitting in Issy’s room on suicide watch, I got this sense that I can’t be the only one. “Where are the families going through this and who is supporting them?” I wondered. And I decided that if we made it through, if Issy got better, my mission would be to make sure that those families didn’t feel alone or isolated in their shame and fear. We’d go on this journey together.

And so, in 2016 I started Parenting Mental Health, a Facebook community for parents supporting their teens through mental health issues. It’s a place that offers camaraderie and compassion without judgement.

Eventually we launched as a charity, offering partnering to parents going through this, to pass on what we learnt. With Issy we’d discovered that the way we communicated before no longer worked. And so we had to rethink the way we interacted with her and create an opportunity to influence her experience and her illness. We couldn’t fix it but we could influence it. And we could do that by changing our behaviour.

This means not making assumptions. Understanding the illness without trying to diminish it or squash it down quickly because it didn’t serve us as parents. I’ve worked with a lot of parents who see their child’s mental health issues as an inconvenience that they don’t want to face. But what I’ve found is that it will change you if you embrace it, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and who you can rely on. And I think it can be a really testing time in many ways, but you need to be strong, resolute and consistent. Which can be hard when you’re facing new challenges every day.

Issy’s now 19 and she’s doing great. A big fan of gaming, once on the road to recovery we took her to the open day of a local college where she could study it, and she said “I feel like I could be here”. And it wasn’t an easy two years while she studied there but she grew so much in that time. And now she’s at university, living away from home. Incredibly, while lockdown has been a whole other layer of difficulty, she has found being away from home manageable.

So if you’re a parent going through something similar with your child, while this might feel like the end of everything you knew, it’s actually the start of a wonderful new beginning. Issy learnt that she can rely on us, but also that she can rely on herself. She’s learned that whoever she becomes we accept her. Safe in that knowledge, she can go off and be whoever she wants to be.

If your young adult child has mental health issues

This isn’t a problem to fix
It’s their experience and you can’t fix it. You can influence it, but actually just being present is a real gift.

Your own self care is vital
Try to find a way to compartmentalise it and go off and do things that bring you joy, to give you the energy to be a real support to your child.

Manage your own mental health
If you show your anxiety around theirs it will probably feed the situation and not in a helpful way. While it may come from a place of love, nonetheless keep your own stress to yourself.

Get a plan together.
There’s no reason your child can’t recover from this. So make sure you’ve explored all of the options with the NHS and with CAMHS. If you can afford to get help privately your child will get seen quicker.

Look at the options
Don’t be afraid to consider medication and therapy and if your child is prescribed either, don’t take it personally. These are complex human beings that have their own right to think and feel.

Be present and patient
You need to look at your role differently so that you partner, rather than parent, your child. You can do this by being present and patient. And by not judging them.

You’re not a failure
Don’t let thoughts of self-blame take hold. This is why community is so important, to remind us that we’re not failures as parents, and we’re not the only ones. Talking to other people in a safe, non-judgmental space allows you to explore how you feel and get support.

Seek help
If you can’t make sense of this yourself, get some professional help – for you. Remember, there’s no failure in this so give yourself a break. You didn’t cause it. You can’t fix it. But you can influence it.

Suzanne Alderson’s book Never Let Go is a supportive, practical guide to help parents care for a child suffering with poor mental health.
https://parentingmentalhealth.com