Susie Fowler-Watt: a tale of our times
PUBLISHED: 13:17 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:17 23 July 2018
It’s tough for young people these days, says Susie, and Charlotte’s story shows just how hard it can be
There are many aspects of parenting that are different today from when my parents brought me up. First there is the technology – the constant struggle to get children off their gadgets and into the real world, fresh air and all.
Then there is the fact that our society has become far more child-centric; we run around like crazy trying to fill their days with stimulating activities rather than just letting them get on with it and amuse themselves. When my five-year-old complains of being ‘bored’ – normally two seconds after we have made him turn off a screen of some sort – I say: “Good! That means you can let your imagination run riot!”
But the hardest aspect of all, I think, is the huge increase in mental health issues. The journey to adulthood seems far more fraught with danger in this respect than it ever used to be.
It may be that the aspects of modern life mentioned above play their part; it may also be that we’re now much more aware of the subject, so the stress and worry I felt while doing exams (I had to be taken to the school infirmary the day before my A levels) might nowadays be called anxiety. Back in those days I had just got myself “in a bit of a state”.
But there is no doubt that many, many more children are suffering from serious mental health issues – anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders – than ever before. Sometimes these conditions are so severe that they impact on their education and can even be life-threatening. They are not just “in a bit of a state”.
Let me tell you about Charlotte. A bright, fun-loving girl from Norfolk, with a close family, Charlotte started to show symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at the age of 11. At first it was repetitive behaviour – counting, carrying out the same rituals – in order to prevent something ‘bad’ happening to her loved ones. But within months it had escalated into a very serious condition.
By spring last year Charlotte was so afraid of contamination that she had virtually stopped eating. She wouldn’t go to the lavatory inside a building – she had to go in the garden. She couldn’t go upstairs and would sleep on the kitchen floor. She could spend hours washing her hands. She self-harmed and had suicidal thoughts.
Imagine the suffering of that poor girl and the agony of her family. Her mother Marie told me “If anyone had asked me what hell is like, I would have said this is it.”
Eventually, after facing a real struggle to get the appropriate treatment, Charlotte was admitted to a specialist hospital in London, where she was treated as an in-patient for seven months. It was gruelling, distressing and immensely difficult for the family. But she is getting better.
What Charlotte now knows is that she is not alone; so many young people are going through what she has endured. As a result, she is setting up a charity with her friend Maria to help others – mentalhelp.org.uk. It launches this month, with a film made by the girls, at an event supported by OCD Action and Young Minds.
One of the main aims of the charity is to grant wishes to children who have mental health issues – to give them hope and something to look forward to. The Make a Wish Foundation does this for physically ill children, but there is nothing for those who are mentally ill.
Most importantly, Charlotte is telling her story. What strength and courage that takes.
What I really want to do is wrap my arms around Charlotte and Marie and make it all better. Unfortunately I can’t do that. What I can do is share their story, because it’s a tale of our time. We collectively need to wrap our arms around every Charlotte and Marie going through such horrors, and together we might make the world a better place for all our children.
BBC TV’s Look East presenter Susie Fowler-Watt shares a little of her family life every month