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'Bang on every door' for suffering children

Mentally ill children get a raw deal, a new study says. Nicholas Pyke reports. Millions of parents whose children have mental health problems are struggling with guilt, isolation and terrible uncertainty, according to a new study which attacks the lack of compassion and support they receive.

The current rhetoric of "good parenting" is meaningless when set against the meagre support parents are given in reality, says the Mental Health Foundation in a report based on the experiences of families. Many are driven to attempt suicide.

It paints a bleak picture of a system peopled with unsympathetic, confusing and frequently ignorant professionals - including the family GP - who often make the problem worse rather than better. School was felt to have added to children's mental problems despite the efforts of individual teachers.

The study concludes that parents should "bang on every door in the land" if necessary to find help for themselves as well as their children.

It is estimated that 2 million children in the UK have some form of mental health problem and, says the report, the evidence suggests that the figure is rising. Two per cent of those under 16 (250,000) have severe mental problems.

Between 2 and 8 per cent of adolescents suffer from major depression; 2 to 4 per cent have attempted suicide. Since 1982 suicide has risen by 75 per cent in young men aged 15 to 24.

Bulimia nervosa affects 1 per cent of adolescent girls and young women and 0.5 to 1 per cent of 12 to 19-year-olds suffer with anorexia nervosa.

"All the parents blamed themselves in some way for their child's mental health problems," says the report. "These feelings existed naturally but had often been exacerbated by professional attitudes - GPs, psychiatrists and family therapists - towards them.

"Parents referred frequently to themselves as coping and getting on with it." But they acknowledged that the effects of caring for a young person with mental health problems had often been devastating. All had experienced feelings of despair and isolation - five of the 30 parents interviewed had seriously contemplated suicide.

What parents found most disconcerting was that professionals were often unsympathetic, patronising and at the same time failed to provide the basic facts that they needed.

"Parents' criticisms were primarily to do with attitude, lack of andor conflicting information, lack of continuity of care and lack of compassion. They did not feel involved or included in decisions that affect not just their child but their family lives as a whole."

Disturbingly the report found that fathers, if still around, were not prepared to talk about the issues and that it was left to women to do the bulk of the coping. The researchers were also unable to involve black and Asian families, even though they are disproportionately represented among the mentally ill. This, says the report, probably reflects the stigma accorded to mental problems among minority communities.

It concludes that parents should try to dispel feelings of powerlessness and blame; they should not be overawed by professionals; that while their children need unconditional love, they should also seek help and support for their own problems; and they should encourage their children to help themselves as much as possible.

Unconditional Love? A report based on the views and experiences of parents living with children with mental health problems is available from the Mental Health Foundation at 37 Mortimer St, London W1N 8JA , price Pounds 6.

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