Note: What follows touches upon sexual assault, eating disorders and suicide.
A family friend of mine took her own life last year.
Just writing that sentence, I can’t help but distance myself from the horrible enormity of it all by feeling as if I’ve just stepped into a slightly dark and melodramatic soap opera – but I haven’t. It’s real, and it happened. I don’t think I or anyone will ever fully understand how or why a fifteen year old girl could have ever reached a place so inescapably dark that she saw no other way out but to rid herself of her own existence not far from her childhood home.
However, whilst we must accept that it is impossible for anyone ever to comprehend the workings of her mind on that night, we can ask ourselves what could have been done, why the now-obvious triggers (a sexual assault at the age of fourteen, the onset of bulimia) that led to her death may not have been dealt with properly, and, most importantly, what can be done to raise awareness of the issue of young suicide, and to transform it from a hushed, taboo topic into something which is openly discussed. We must ensure that the mental health and emotional well-being of adolescents is taken completely seriously, that sufferers of mental health problems are neither overlooked nor stigmatised, and that their cries for help are not dismissed as selfish pleas for attention.
The most obvious changes which need to be made are those concerning mental health provisions. In this case, the girl in question wasn’t seen by a professional at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) until a whole month after she was referred by a teacher whom she had approached to tell him of her bulimia. She saw a social worker from CAMHS – not a mental health specialist – the day before she died, and described the meeting as “horrible,” her father noting that the professional was “cold.” The school nurse in charge of her case was, at that time, dealing with 25 schools in a 26 hour working week. At this school alone, there were 40 active cases. Her school counsellor moved away just weeks after she had begun dealing with this case, resulting in an inadequate handover: in a meeting lasting fifteen minutes, plans for their futures of six children were discussed, according to evidence given by teachers at the case inquest.
It seems obvious that this young girl slipped through the net, that the severity of the consequences of her sexual assault and eating disorder were underestimated. While blame cannot be placed exclusively at anyone’s door, and mistakes were unfortunate rather than premeditated, it is clear that mental health and counselling services need to be drastically improved.
This comes at a time when austerity measures mean public services such as CAMHS are having their budgets cut dramatically; YoungMinds, a UK charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people, has found that two thirds of local authorities in England have reduced their CAMHS budget since 2010. One council reported to YoungMinds a drop of 41% in their CAMHS budget from 2010.
Why is it, then, that these essential services are being targeted by an out of touch government looking to reduce its deficit and expenditure? Why is it that campaigns seeking to improve mental health services for young people, led by charities such as YoungMinds and Papyrus, appear to be being perpetually ignored, when suicide remains the leading cause of death amongst young people?
Another important lesson to be taken from this case finds its basis in general societal attitudes towards suicide and mental health. Suicide is seldom discussed – understandably, due to its upsetting nature – but it is nevertheless an inescapable and pertinent truth. Around 4,400 people take their own lives every year in the UK – and this is a conservative estimate, as coroners are reluctant to give a verdict of suicide at an inquest, simply because the legal requirement – that all other possibilities are proven beyond reasonable doubt to be impossible – is so specific and difficult to reach.
Surely, by discussing this issue so reluctantly, we are doing a disservice to charities such as Papyrus which aim to combat the issue. Had discussion and training concerning mental health been more widespread, teachers and support staff would perhaps have been quicker to recognise the seriousness of the traumatic experiences and dark thoughts being relayed to them by this fifteen-year-old girl, and to label them as possible warning signs for self-harm or suicide, despite their perceptions of her as confident and well-adjusted.
By recognising the potentially devastating consequences of mental health issues, we can go some way to tackling them; as a society, we will be more able to spot warning signs, to develop preventative measures, and to provide bereaved relatives with the necessary support in the tragic case that a suicide cannot be prevented.
Attending the memorial service of a young girl who had her whole life ahead of her, as well as the subsequent inquest into the details of the events leading up to her suicide, was, from an entirely selfish point of view, emotionally draining. The suffering that her close family and friends have undergone is unimaginable – and made worse by the thought that things could have been different, that she could have been helped, that this tragedy could have been avoided. If there is one positive to be drawn from the incident, it is that it has exemplified a culture of fear, denial and ignorance surrounding the issue of suicide, and reinforces the need for change – in terms of mental health support and provisions on a practical level, and in terms of our own attitudes towards mental health and suicide emotionally and culturally.