With my son Tom, I think it started with an online forum.
Tom was 15 years old at the time, performing well academically at school, and in his sport. I didn’t notice anything was wrong. But then one afternoon, I received a phone call from the father of one of Tom’s best friends, Mark. Mark had seen something Tom had written on an online forum that worried him greatly and had confided in his dad. His dad then called me, and what he said next came as a complete shock. He said that Tom had written on an online forum that he was going to kill himself on a certain date. I was absolutely floored.
We found out that Tom and other kids were posting and chatting on these online forums, sometimes at 2am in the morning. I had no idea. I was concerned in general about these websites, and I worried kids like Tom might unknowingly befriend strangers online.
But of course, my biggest concern at that moment was addressing his dark and concerning posts. My husband and I had a long conversation with him, trying to get to the bottom of it, but Tom kept assuring us that it was ‘just a joke’ and that he was just ‘mucking around.’
Then, a few weeks later, I was about to drive Tom to school, and he sat down next to me in the passenger seat, wearing his Winter blazer. As he sat down, his blazer came up at the wrists, and I saw three cuts. I grabbed his hand, horrified and scared, and asked what was going on.
Tom didn’t want to talk to me, all he said was that it was ‘my fault…’
When we got home, I rang a close friend who is a psychiatric nurse, and asked for advice, and she recommended I take Tom to a youth mental health clinic. Once we arrived, the nurse said that Tom was delusional, diagnosed a psychotic episode, and insisted he be hospitalized.
I remember saying ‘Today, as in right now?’, and the answer was ‘Yes.’ Except, when we tried to make arrangements for hospital admission, we were told that there were no beds available. This was on a Monday. I spent a week of sleepless nights on Tom’s floor, watching him sleep, making sure he didn’t try to harm himself again.
On Friday, they finally called to say there was a bed available.
Thankfully, Tom was admitted, and was under a doctor’s care for the next week. They wanted him to immediately take anti-psychotics, but Tom refused. Thankfully, Tom did respond well to the private sessions with the psychiatrist, who after a week, gave him a weekend pass. He reassured me I could bring Tom back if there were any issues.
By this stage, I had removed every sharp object from the house. My two younger kids didn’t understand why I had suddenly decided to only use plastic knives and forks. But the next day, Tom had marks up his arms again. He had found the one common household item that I hadn’t thought of.
We went back to the hospital, and the Doctor recommended some family sessions, with my husband and Tom’s siblings, which we did together. One of his brothers admitted he knew what Tom was doing, and said he didn’t tell us because he didn’t want Tom to be ‘taken away.’ This broke our hearts.
After many more therapy sessions, we were able to take Tom home again, where we were to continue a regular check-up with a therapist as part of his ongoing treatment plan. Looking back now on that horrible time, I didn’t recognise what was going on, because I felt ‘You have got everything you need. You’re good at school, what exactly are you so desperately unhappy about?’ I didn’t know how to deal with what was happening. I was used to seeing health in black and white, whereas mental health is such a grey, and complicated area. It is an area I firmly believe needs more research funding.
I have seen how many negative influences there are that we as parents battle against; the smart phones, social media, and online forums, I believe they all have a lot to do with the problem. Kids can be secretive with how they are using them, and it scares me how they don’t realise that the ‘friends’ they are speaking to online may not even be friends at all.
Ironically, that’s why I believe an online program, that’s easily accessible for young people, is a great idea from QIMR Berghofer, particularly if it is introduced at a young age, ideally before puberty. Online is all they know, and that will appeal to them. It is a great medium for early intervention, hopefully before medication or professional counselling is ever needed, when someone’s child is showing early signs of anxiety or depression.
Today I am thankful I was able to get the support my son Tom needed, and to get him through high school with family and therapy support. However, I know we are one of the lucky families, and my hope is, through medical research into youth mental health, other mothers don’t have to go through the heartache of what my family and I experienced…or worse.
Will you join us on our mission to ease the mental health suffering of our youth and their families this Christmas?
If you or a loved one need someone to talk to, call: