How I cope with a teenager who self-harms
Julie's mum talks about her experiences caring for her daughter, Julie, who has mental health problems and self-harms.
I started my blog JuliesMum just over a year ago, and I write about what my life is like caring for my teenage daughter who developed a serious mental illness a few years ago. Like a lot of blog writers, I had been searching for a blog like mine for a while, and when I found nothing suitable, decided to write my own. I started out writing for myself but over time I have been surprised and pleased to find how many other people read - and often comment on - my blog. My regular readers cheer me and Julie on through the ups and downs of our life, and have become a vital part of my support network. In particular, I have learnt a huge amount from people who have had similar experiences to Julie, which has helped me understand better what she is going through.
Julie was a bright, popular, 13-year-old doing well at school when she started to self-harm. At the beginning it looked like a fairly straightforward mix of depression and anxiety related to over-work, that would be resolved quickly with anti-depressants and some counselling. It was worrying as parents, but medical staff were very reassuring that it would be over soon. It was a surprise to everyone when it turned out to be more difficult to treat. As the full extent of her problems began to unfold, it slowly became apparent that Julie's illness was very unusual, and much more challenging.
Julie has no diagnosis yet, despite spending the whole of last year living in the hospital, and having to return there repeatedly this year. Lack of diagnosis is not unusual in very young patients: teenagers change so rapidly that it is difficult to know what category to put them into (and the categories they could go into are far from appealing). She does suffer from underlying depression, and she also hears disturbing voices and easily gets confused and distressed. She takes a number of medications, some of which have difficult side-effects, such as weight gain and making it hard to concentrate. The biggest challenge is her self-harm, which is quite extreme and often results in trips to A&E. At the moment, the family and the hospital between us supervise her virtually all the time, to try to reduce the self-harm, but we're constantly working to make her independent of us again. For one thing, we would like to try and reintroduce her to mainstream school: she has missed great chunks of her education, and on a lot of ordinary teenage experiences.
It all sounds a bit heavy-going, but it would be a big mistake to write Julie off as a tragedy. Her illness has changed her life completely, but between the crises, she is still the same funny, clumsy, sweet, kind person as before. She likes going to the cinema, she thinks Coldplay are the best band in the world, and she likes baking (especially licking out the bowl!) She worries about her spots, and her exams, and she enjoys winding up her younger brother, just like any other teenager. My blog started because of Julie's illness, but it is not only about her illness - life does go on. As well as caring for Julie, we still have to go to work, cook dinner, weed the garden, and survive her brother's teenage too. One of the hardest aspects of the stigma of mental illness for me is the widespread belief that it must mean that there is something "a bit funny" about the family. That just isn't true for us: we are not particularly different from our friends, and Julie's illness is not a sign that we have "failed" as a family. Our main difference from other families is just what we have to cope with in caring for Julie.
Writing the blog has helped me enormously in keeping the difficulties of caring for Julie in some sort of perspective. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the situation: there are some weeks, for example, where we might have to take her to A&E three times; there are other weeks where you barely get any sleep; and then there is the heart-wrenching grief when she has to go back into hospital again. Keeping a record is as good a way as any of reminding yourself that you have survived it all. And then occasionally there is a really good day and it is wonderful to be able to record that!
If you are a parent and are worried that your child is self-harming, there is more information about self-harm here.
If you are a young person self-harming and want more information and sources of help, visit our website.