When I was 16 I became weirdly fixated on getting straight As in my exams at school. That’s the only way I know how to explain it. I’d had symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder for as long as I could remember, but was so used to the repetitive thoughts looping round my head that it was as normal as blinking. Once under stress, they quickly mushroomed, and trying to deal with them one by one became like a pointless game of whack-a-mole – every time I got rid of one compulsion, my brain would find three new ones.
I was diagnosed with OCD and depression and put on medication. My mum initially treated this like a quirky lifestyle choice and put it down to reading The Bell Jar too many times or having that famous picture of Richey Edwards from the Manics on my bedroom wall.
Then I went properly, full-on mad. To the extent that no one knew what to do with me. I had started walking out of school, sometimes mid-lesson, and was having panic attacks. I started to cut myself off from friends at school, preferring to spend lunchtimes sitting alone in the library; it took what felt like a Herculean effort to behave like I was normal for eight hours a day. I remember thinking school was stopping me from studying as much as I needed to, which seems mad now, but at the time felt totally reasonable.
After a night spent crying hysterically while my dad reassuringly shouted, “She’s going to Carstairs! We need to put her in Carstairs!” (Scottish Broadmoor, thanks Dad), I was placed in a tier 4 unit that was part of the local child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs).
I didn’t even know it was called that until recently: it sounds very official for what was actually a holding pen for people no one else could be bothered with.
I ended up attending this unit daily for two months instead of school. I can’t say it helped, other than providing me with a lot of weird anecdotes. I used to think I was imagining how bad my unit was, that maybe I was delusional as well as depressed, but now I suspect not – 10 years on, the woeful lack of provision for mentally ill teenagers frequently appears in the news and on TV. I felt vindicated when a report by charity Young Minds last year found major failings within Camhs services, some of which mirrored my own experience. Those failures included a lack of beds – with some children sent as far as 275 miles for care, or admitted to adult mental health wards due to a lack of bed space. Young Minds also raised concerns over staff shortages, and ward closures, with 5,784 bed days lost during 2013. And this month it was reported that more than 500 children in Hull and East Riding alone were on the waiting list for Camhs.
Referral times are worse than ever now, but even 10 years ago the system was chaotic and inconsistent. By the time anyone noticed there was something seriously wrong with me, I had gone mad, taken an overdose, gone mad again and was over the worst of it upon attending the unit.
For us, a typical day would be spent bickering with support staff in the morning over petty, ever-changing rules, followed by group therapy, doing strange artwork-cum-trust exercises with the occupational therapist and watching telly. Despite the known curative properties of watching repeats of Jeremy Kyle, I selfishly replaced them with “school time”, where my justifiable panic over how I’d ever study for my highers in a mental unit were mistakenly interpreted as part of my illness.
There was no sharing of information between services (the small matter of me trying to top myself was never passed from A&E to the referring psychiatrist), there was never any explanation of a structured care plan, or if there was, no one told me. I received one hilarious session of what I think was meant to be cognitive behavioural therapy, where the unit manager dramatically pushed a tissue box askew (“How does THAT make you feel, Fern? Hmm?”) as I tried not to laugh.
We were spoken about with disdain and in oddly clinical terms – “the young people” and “service users” – instead of treated as real people with valid feelings. There was always the vague sense that I’d done something wrong, that we’d all done something wrong, even though we hadn’t.
A lot of innocuous things we did or said were pathologised and treated suspiciously as manipulative behaviour indicative of a personality disorder. I’d love to say adulthood has brought me fresh insight into this, but my experience as a support worker in a similar service a few years ago only reinforced my belief that the staff charged with our care were poorly trained at best, needlessly antagonistic at worst.
An example: on my first visit there, while trying to work out how to make polite chitchat about schoolwork with another patient, I said “maths is crap”. I was sternly told off for inappropriate language. At the time I wouldn’t even have sworn in front of my parents.
Another day, during a pleasant chat with our only teacher in the unit, I asked which schools he’d taught at before. He replied and looked unfazed, I got on with my French revision and thought nothing of it. I was later told off by the head nurse in front of everyone for failing to respect boundaries.
They really made me feel like I might be a serial killer rather than someone with a common and treatable illness. I wasn’t the only one this happened to – in a place full of fairly quiet girls whose main hobbies were self-harming and wearing black, we were handled with a caution more suited to violent criminals. We alternated between laughing and getting frustrated by it all. It’s hardly ideal to be treated like delinquents when your identity is still forming. I quickly stopped thinking of myself as quiet and became increasingly aggressive.
I discharged myself not long after turning 17. There was no follow-up, no transition into adult services, no further appointments, I just walked out. Depressingly, this is still happening in Camhs across the country, even though everything points to early intervention as the best way to prevent more complex, less treatable problems down the line. My parents, initially so keen for me to go there, made no objection to my leaving. It was obvious the place was only making me worse after I started smoking and leaving incredibly bad love letters from one of the other girls lying around my room.
It might seem like an odd source for comedy, but it felt inevitable I’d end up writing a sitcom about it. The grim spectacle of 10 crazy teenagers and nurses singing Happy Birthday to me in group therapy, the love letters and horrible Argos necklaces from the tiny skinhead girlfriend I acquired in there, a group of teens competing over which of us was the maddest – none of it was effective treatment. But all of it was funny.
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 14 July 2015.