Maternal mental health problems are very prevalent, yet few employers mention them in...read more
As part of its occasional series on how parents are coping with mental health issues in teenage children, workingmums.co.uk talks to Celia Cooper about her experience of dealing with a family mental health crisis while trying to hold down a job in teaching.
Celia Cooper* knows the value of a supportive employer when you have a child with serious mental health problems. Her teenage daughter went through crisis after crisis as she came up to her A Levels, leading to several suicide attempts and hospitalisation. Celia, a special needs teacher, visited her almost every night and spent all her weekends with her. The stress was immense. She tells workingmums what it was like at a time of rising concerns about the mental wellbeing of young people,
Celia says she knew that she and her daughter Claire needed help way before Claire reached crisis point, but they struggled to access it. Like many young people, she was put on the long waiting list for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Celia tried private therapists, but she says it was not really until Claire tried to take her life that any real help kicked in. “It was really frustrating,” says Celia. “I was asking for help through the GP and school, but the school’s resources were pretty thin on the ground and all they could offer was pretty tokenistic.” Eventually, she got a CAMHS slot, but there were a few changes of counsellor which didn’t give Claire enough time to establish a relationship with them and be able to open up. “Every time she kept going back to square one,” says Celia. She was prescribed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which Celia says was not right for her. “She didn’t see the point of it,” says Celia.
Because Celia lives on the border of two counties she took Claire to a hospital in one county after the first suicide attempt. She was discharged after 24 hours and visited by a CAMHS person who said she didn’t really want to kill herself and that it was just a call for attention. “It was like a red rag to a bull,” says Celia. “My view was if it is a call for attention then give her some attention.”
The next time she tried to take her life Celia took her to a hospital in a different county which was equally as close as the other one. She says there appeared to be no communication across the county border so there was no data on her previous attempt on her life or history of mental health issues. They treated her as a relatively new case. Celia, meanwhile, rang her doctor for help only to be told initially that they couldn’t speak to her because her daughter was 16, even though she was suicidal.
While she was receiving counselling, Claire received a message to say that one of the people in her form had committed suicide. That affected her very badly and even before she left the building Celia knew that she needed help. She was admitted to hospital for 72 hours during which time she was labelled as having an emotionally unstable personality disorder [EUPD]. The team told her that that does not respond to hospital treatment so they would have to discharge her. They advised Celia to orchestrate a 24-hour watch on her daughter, to remove anything harmful from the house, including tv cords and knives and to put medicines and cleaning products under lock and key. “It was not feasible. My husband and I are both working and we have two other children. We set our alarms through the night, but it was horrendous,” she says.
A few days later, Claire seemed calmer. Celia and her husband [Claire’s stepfather] were watching tv and Claire’s coat was hanging at the bottom of the stairs. Celia had a baby monitor on to listen in on Claire. Her husband said he thought he heard the click of the front door. Celia looked out and Claire’s coat was gone. There was a letter in her room saying how much she hated her life. Celia rang the police immediately. Her husband and friends had gone out looking for Claire. They found her near the railway lines. The police arrived and sectioned her in a unit about 40 minutes away.
Every night for several weeks Celia would drive over to see Claire and at the weekend Celia, her husband and their younger daughter would go and spend time with her, sometimes taking the dog, who Claire loved. Celia worried about the impact on her younger daughter. “What does that do to a seven year old, hearing all the screaming and seeing her sister drugged up to the eyeballs?” asks Celia. Celia also had to attend monthly meetings during the day. Fortunately, her work as a special needs teacher allowed her to flex around the meetings and meant she had had some training in mental health and her head teacher was very supportive. “I made the time up, but if I had not been able to I would have had to leave,” she says.
Claire was moved to a more secure unit after her attempts at self injury worsened. It was one and a half hours away. Celia again went every night after work, except when family and friends took turns to go. She says she was constantly on edge, checking her phone all the time. She was eventually sent back to the original unit, but within a week she had got hold of a shard of glass and slashed her arms. Celia only found out after she had been taken to A & E.
The unit decided they could not meet Claire’s needs. Celia was told she could be placed either in Sheffield or at a unit around 45 minutes from home. She knew she would not be able to travel regularly to Sheffield. The expense of driving back and forth was mounting up already and the lease on her car was tied to a certain mileage. At one point she was going to ask a friend for a loan for private treatment and she even considered moving to get a bigger house so that Claire could live alongside them because she couldn’t envisage things ever getting better.
Fortunately, Claire was sent to the nearer option where the environment was altogether different from what Celia and Claire had experienced before. Firstly, the team asked Celia to tell them about Claire, which was a breath of fresh air. Celia said that Claire had been diagnosed with EUPD. She was told that EUPD is impossible to diagnose in someone under 21 and so quickly. The main psychologist weaned Claire off all her drugs in order to get to know her properly and realised that she was very academic and put her into an education programme. She was given additional responsibilities as an advocate for other patients. “They resparked her will to live,” says Celia simply. She was eventually diagnosed with ADHD and was discharged at the start of the pandemic.
Since then Celia says Claire has not looked back. Covid and confinement was good for her. She got her A Levels and was accepted to study Psychology at a prestigious university [she wrote about her experiences in her personal statement – her school said it was the best personal statement they had ever read].
Celia says that despite all of this the anxiety of that time will never leave her – even two years on, she feels things could all go back to square one. She has also had to deal with the impact on her younger daughter who has been given counselling through school.
She is extremely grateful for the help of family and friends, particularly her husband and says she is not sure what other support could have helped her more at the time, apart from a better, more joined up health system that focused on getting to know Claire. There were parent groups at the first unit Claire was in, but Celia says she just didn’t have the time to attend. “I felt guilty doing anything that was not about my kids,” she says.
Claire is now in her second year and doing well. “The course has given her a voice. She knows what she is talking about when it comes to Psychology and what did and did not work. What worked was someone getting to know her, believing in her and showing her a way back into her life,” says Celia.
*Not her real name