On August 15th 2014 my step-daughter Elspeth took her own life. I wrote about it, you can read my Dear Elspeth post here, but it will make you sad, so maybe don't read it if you are at work. I also wrote about how our children seemed to cope over the first 9 months, and what helped them.
It's now 2 1/2 years later, and Elspeth is still dead. Her siblings don't see her or speak to her every single day. Her step-sister doesn't have another teenage girl at home to talk about make up and clothes. Her step-brother has gone to university alone, just as he went to college alone, after spending 8 years as her classmate.
Her little brother won't belt out Les Miserables songs beautifully at full volume any more. He won't sing at all. He says it's rubbish. Neither of her little brothers will enter or stay in an empty room.
One of her siblings has spent a large part of the last 18 months ill in hospital.
When Elspeth died I made sure that all of the children had access to counselling. I wanted all of them to be given that option. I lost my own brother a couple of years previously, and I carried a lot of guilt and sadness from that. I knew how hard I found that. I couldn't bear for them to have to suffer. I needed them to be told it wasn't their fault, as often as possible.
The last two Summers have been especially hard for us. It signals August, an anniversary we don't want to have to remember, and it's the end of the exams. All of the teenagers focussed hard on school and college work, it was a welcome distraction, and it kept them busy, but it just deflected from the huge gaping hole they were edging carefully around.
With the exams over, our young people should have spent the last 2 Summers enjoying their freedom and sun with their mates, instead they've all been introspective and a bit lost.
To lose your sibling to their own hand was too much for one of the children. They couldn't cope, and they didn't talk about it. They talked about everything else, and poured themselves into their GCSE's. They did incredibly well, but even before the results were out, they were very ill.
Being a teenager today is incredibly hard. If you go back 50 years, you basically slotted into brains, beauty or brawn. You could use the natural skills you were born with to secure your place in the world. Modern society means that we are all expected to have a good level of all of these qualities before we can be told we succeeded.
It's no longer acceptable to scrape an academic pass and be brilliant at football. You can't only be the best at Maths, you have to look hot in a short skirt too. You are at least allowed to be a fabulous chef or hairdresser whether you are male or female, but you'd better be physically attractive. And having the kind of face that Instagram loves, well, that'll get you labelled as an airhead any day.
It's too much to cope with. It turns every aspect of our lives into a competition that no-one can ever truly win, with a lifestyle no-one can maintain. For young people, who are already struggling to find where they fit, that constant comparison, competition and failure can only be crippling. Add any other traumatic event, and how are they meant to carry on?
Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.*
One in ten children aged between 5 and 16 years (three in every classroom) has a mental health problem, and many continue to have these problems into adulthood.*
Our young person is doing really well. They are looking ahead to the future, they have taken hold of the ladder and are climbing. They have found their hope and we're really proud of them. They are beginning to realise that no-one ever slots in perfectly, we're all person-shaped pegs in round holes. And that's okay.
Events including bullying, bereavement, domestic violence, family breakdown, neglect and trauma mean that an average of 3 children in each school class in the UK have mental health problems.
These are children. They deserve our sympathy, our empathy, and our compassion.
Place2be have organised Children's Mental Health week to encourage everyone — adults and children alike — to spread a little kindness. A little understanding can be all that's needed to make someone's day. A kind word or a hug can turn an awful week around. You can find out all sorts of ways you can be kind, whether you are a friend, classmate, teacher, parent or anyone else, on the Place2Be website.
I truly hope that adverse Children's Mental Health hasn't affected your life and that of your family, and that it never does. I hope that your children have the chance to be children, before they have to be an adult...and I hope beyond hope, that they get the chance to be an adult.
February 12th 1998 - August 15th 2014
I share the smiles I collect over the month every 15th, and I ask you to share yours too, using the hashtag #TBCSmiles - as the reason and the reminder why we carry on. Every smile means it is worth it.
*Source - Place2Be.