Mum Suzanne Whitton

In the last few weeks, people up and down the country have been attempting to adjust to a new normal, with no physical contact with extended family. There are also parents who have suddenly had to stop seeing their child because they are in secure settings and the risk is deemed too high. For the young person, this can be devastating and daunting, but it has repercussions for the whole family, including siblings. Here, mum Suzanne, who hasn’t seen her daughter for 8 weeks, shares some advice for parents holding the fort at home and trying to keep it all going, whilst often forgetting themselves.

My story

Two weeks before celebrating her 16th birthday, my eldest daughter was admitted to an adolescent psychiatric ward. It happened fairly suddenly, after an initial suicide attempt and a verbal commitment that she planned to end her life at the first opportunity.

This was back in April 2016 and at the time, I didn’t know anyone with a child experiencing this level of mental health difficulties. I felt out of my depth and utterly helpless. The realisation that our bright, bubbly, multi-talented daughter no longer wanted to live, brought my whole world crashing down in one fell swoop.

She was assigned the first adolescent bed that became available, which happened to be in a hospital two hours away from home. I remember leaving her on that first day – fragile, young for her years and about to enter an unknown world that none of us were prepared for. I cried so hard on the car journey home, physically choking from the torrent of emotions.

A shock for all of us

If it was all a shock for me, I cannot begin to imagine how our other two children (aged 14 and 11 at the time) must have felt – their sister suddenly leaving home with very little warning. We had a sad and painful afternoon together on her 16th birthday, miles away from home with none of our usual celebrations. Unbelievably, she did manage to take her GCSEs on the ward, but it was mid-September before she was in a position to return home for good.

Despite having a pretty stable 18 months after that first admission, she has recently spent another 11 months in different psychiatric wards around the country. During this time, our other two children have grown up considerably. Their sister remains vital to our family dynamics, but we have had to find a ‘new normal’ – a way to manage her absence whilst still remaining in close contact.

Despite feeling like it back in 2016, I now know that our family is not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people locked up on psychiatric wards and secure settings, miles away from home. We’ve learnt (often the hard way) some tips on how to best manage this time as a family and I hope that they might be helpful to someone reading this today.

Speak up

It’s very easy to lose your confidence at this time. I felt like my daughter had been taken away from me, because I had done a bad job. When professionals swoop in, this feeling is often confirmed and as parents, we can feel overlooked and as though our opinions are no longer valid.

Please remember that you know your child best and no one else will fight for your child like you will. Although it’s important to remain respectful (for your child’s sake as much as your own) of professionals, you have a voice and a unique perspective – it’s time to speak up!

Stay connected

Having had eleven years as a family of 5, it was so hard to adjust to only setting 4 places at the dinner table every evening. Staying connected is crucial to every family member’s wellbeing, not just the one who has been wrenched away from the home.

Our family Whatsapp group gets updated daily with pictures of our dogs and little anecdotes from everyday life. Humour has always been integral to our family so we send funny memes and silly videos of us doing things that we know she will find amusing. Facetime is a fantastic alternative to seeing one another in the flesh and allows our daughter to see her beloved dogs and to just drop into family life as and when.

During her first admission, she wasn’t allowed her phone which meant that we had to buy a lot of stamps. Post is so lovely to receive at any time but especially for someone in this situation. Even now, we regularly send cards in the post with a positive quote on the front and a few encouraging words inside. Our daughter has a treasured box of letters and cards that people have sent her over the years; I know how much every single one has meant to her.

Normality is key

It can sometimes feel weird to carry on as normal when you’re one family member down but at times, it’s been the key to us surviving.

We have always been mindful not to allow what has happened to their sister, to completely dominate the lives of our other two children. Sport at the weekends, part-time jobs, and the usual friendship gatherings that play a crucial part in teenagers’ lives, have all been encouraged. It can be so difficult for siblings.

Depending on whether leave has been granted or not, we will try to go out as a five and do normal family things like celebrating a birthday in a local restaurant or taking the dogs for a walk together.

Keep communication open at home

It’s very difficult for anyone to understand the concept of someone wanting to end their life, let alone a sibling. We shared what we felt was age-appropriate information and took the lead from each of our children. One has always been very much from the ‘knowledge is power’ school of thought, while the other one has been more reserved, preferring instead to bury is head in friendships and football. There is no right or wrong way to deal with this – something we all do well to remember!  

The most important thing for us has been trying to create an atmosphere at home where no questions are off limits and feelings are regularly aired. As parents, we have been on a steep learning curve trying to model this.

Don’t forget yourself

It’s very easy to become so focused on trying to keep everyone else connected, reassured, mentally balanced and feeling loved, that you forget yourself. Please remember that your feelings are valid and that you matter too. I would highly recommend seeking out some personal therapy to help you through this time.

Never underestimate what a painful and incredibly lonely journey this can be. So often it can feel as though you’re the only one whose child is not progressing through life as you had imagined. Remember that you are not alone and never give up hope that they (and you) will get there.