Personal power

Drowning Not Waving

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Last summer when my eldest boy graduated from University of Essex with a BSc Economics it was an emotional day. There were many times over the previous four years that I thought he would never be happy again.

When I turned round during the graduation ceremony I started to cry. Not the ladylike tears you see at weddings and christenings but huge sobs that completely bemused my teenage daughter sitting right next to me.

You see, my boy had struggled through a long period of clinical depression laced with a computer gaming addiction. He became isolated from all of his friends and most of his family. His academic career completely imploded.

When he turned to me in the marquee after graduating, he said, “Do you think anyone else here has only four low grade GCSEs.”

The answer, of course, is no. He is an unusual young man. He fought and won against the demons that surrounded him as a teenage boy. So many lose.

When Conor first started suffering I did not know what to do until one friend said, “He’s drowning not waving.” I contacted several experts I had encountered during my seven years on ITV’s Tonight programme and a few recommendations from friends because, guess what? I wasn’t alone. The experts were marvellous and they also told me that teenage depression was becoming distressingly common. I was told that while years ago the fastest group of those suffering from depression was middle aged women, it was now teenagers – boys in particular.

Nothing has changed. According to the the BBC the World Health Organisation says there has been a 54 per cent increase in the number of children in the UK being prescribed anti-depressants.

Dr Shekhar Saxen of the WHO, says, “There is no reason for many years of prescriptions being continuously given.”

Conor pulled through thanks largely to his own heroic efforts. He has turned into an incredible person. After graduating he was given a grant to study for his MSc, an award made on the condition that he mentor younger students.

I have reported his story twice for TV and twice for national newspapers (the Guardian and the Telegraph) over a period of four years. The photograph with this blog is the one used by the Telegraph for the most recent story.

I have two other children who are currently working toward public exams. The pressure on them is enormous. They have a great deal of support from me and their father; even though we are divorced we are as one on the subject of our children. Their schools are remarkably diligent at keeping watch for any signs of trouble.

I have been told that several girls at a top secondary school have to sit their exams in isolation because they can’t face going in to the exam room. The school employs two counsellors and is more than happy to work with any mental health expert being consulted by families. This is from a school known and respected for nurturing young students, so imagine what is going on elsewhere.

Why are teenagers so depressed and why are GPs resorting to medication when in many cases that is the wrong answer?

Let’s take those two one at a time.

The second, I believe is easier to answer. GPs often prescribe pills because it is the simplest way of getting a result fast and they know mental health services are slow and under funded.

The first point is far harder to deal with but here is what I regard as a big factor. We have become too used to setting up processes which have little room for flexibility. A one size fits all mentality pervades and has been adopted by families and educational institutions.

Families often believe their children have to fit a particular mould and then later on schools, often facing their own challenges and league tables, do exactly the same. Some children can handle this but many cannot. Many feel like they face years of ordeal by biro (as one teacher put it) and if they do not make the grade their lives won’t be worth living.

Our expectations are high and narrow.

Children start this battle when their cognitive powers are still developing. Some of them simply don’t have the neural or physical resilience to travel through a landscape which looks hostile and unremitting.

I once interviewed the brilliant addiction expert, Paul Lefever from the Promis Addiction Centre, for ITV’s Tonight programme. I asked how we could help children grow into being strong adults, avoiding addiction, anxiety and depression. He said, “Start young. Four is good. Nine is too old.”

We have to accept that raising young children is hard work that requires diligence, concentration and good communication. Some children will be unlucky – they will not be the beneficiaries of this kind of care but there are millions of fantastic parents and teachers who do well but can listen and watch more…me included.

It isn’t a question of blame, it is a question of responsibility and intuition. The easy matrix may not work so have some faith in your own power as a parent and act quickly, effectively and with a belief that you know best.

Many of these children are drowning not waving and a pill won’t save them.