##EXCLUSIVE: Six Australian families share their stories of a mental health system in crisis

###EXCLUSIVE: Six Australian families share their stories of a mental health system in crisis | #MIDDAY

Today is World Mental Health Day, a day intended for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma.

Here in Australia, the suicide rate has increased by staggering nine per cent, according to ABS data released September 2018, making it the 13th leading cause of death, moving up from 15th position in 2016.

This can only mean we are failing sufferers of mental illness when it comes to prevention and treatment, and regardless of the political messaging we are subjected to today, more needs to be done to help arrest this alarming trend.

The data shows men are three times more likely to die from intentional self-harm than woman, and it shows a devastating over-representation of Indigenous Australians dying from suicide.

Devastatingly, suicide has also been shown to be the leading cause of death among all young people 15-44 years of age.

Families and parents around the country are being left to deal with the ripple effects of mental illness. Six of these families have shared their stories exclusively with 9Honey, highlighting an Australian mental health system in crisis. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the families and children, and some stories abridged.

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*Sarah's story, as told by her mum

I would like to share my story about the mental health system here in Queensland.

My daughter Sarah* is 26, and a teacher, just like her mum. She started seeing a psychologist just over a year ago and I thought things were tracking well. About four months ago I had a call at work. It was my daughter. She never phones during class time. We are both too busy teaching. 

Something made me answer that call. 

She broke down crying. The Deputy Principal came on the phone and said my daughter had a melt down before school and they had called an ambulance. She wasn't happy about it.

I immediately got another teacher to take my class and drove to my Sarah's school as fast as I could.  She was in the office, mortified that people would now know she was having problems with her mental health. She insisted she would not go to hospital in an ambulance. 

I learned she had been screaming, crying, crawling around on the floor and self-harming as well as saying she had had enough and couldn't go on any more. I was devastated and convinced her that she needed to go in the ambulance and then she would get help.

We were placed in the waiting area of the mental health unitl, with no contact from anyone for about six hours. No water, no food. 

Eventually someone spoke to her. What I heard broke my heart. Sarah had been having suicidal thoughts for many years, and had made it through high school by chatting online to Beyond Blue.  I had no idea. I was one of those "no computer in the bedroom" type of mums, so she was in the lounge room and I often walked past and never saw anything untoward.

Long story short, we were in the mental health waiting area for over 12 hours. End result: 'Take this business card and call if you need help. Now go home.'  

Later that year my daughter posted on Facebook that she was having a bad day. This time when I got to her she told me she had been thinking of attempting suicide. Then she told me that if I wanted to stop her, I should get her to a hospital. We went to her house to pack a bag, and she had second thoughts. I got the card the mental health unit had given her and phoned, told them what had happened and asked them what I should do. They couldn't tell me. I needed someone to give me some direction, but nope, nothing — except, 'If she is going to commit suicide at this very minute, call an ambulance. Otherwise, use your judgement.'

I took Sarah to the emergency room at the hospital, the same one we'd been in previously. The triage nurse was great. We arrived at the hospital at about 7pm and were eventually moved into a consultation room (which just had three chairs in it) before speaking to a doctor at around 11pm. The doctor left and we stayed in the room. No food, no water, no bed. 

At 11am the next day the psychiatrist arrived. He spoke to us both -- to Sarah alone, to me alone and then to us both together. He had decided Sarah was not suicidal and should go home.

My daughter started crying and asked for his name and position. "Write it down, Mum. Because when he sends me home without doing anything to help me, and I kill myself -- which I will -- I want you to sue the pants off him." He changed his mind and decided to admit her. We would just have to wait for a bed. 

Sarah was delivered lunch and we continued to sit in that same consultation room with just chairs. We waited and waited. Nobody came near us. My daughter got no dinner, and she was sick of waiting. She decided to leave. I begged her to wait. We had waited so long. Surely help couldn't be too far away. 

I went out and knocked on the window so that someone would unlock the door and talk to me. "I'm done. Sarah's done. We've been waiting over 24 hours in a room with just chairs." 

The nurse was horrified and immediately made calls. The bed we had been waiting on was miraculously available. Then we had to wait for security to escort her, and 27 hours later we took the hardest walk of my life, through locked door after locked door, having all her things searched. All the movies I had ever seen about mental health wards came flashing back. It was just like this, only worse. 

She was scared. I was scared. We both cried. They made me leave, and I still don't know how I got home that night. Sarah was kept in for two nights and then released. As she has a private psychologist and psychiatrist, there is no follow up. The problem with this is she has no private health insurance, and struggles to pay the psychiatrist. She is at the end of her 10 subsidised psychologist visits available through Medicare

I'm not sure where we go from here. All I know is our system is grossly inadequate, and people will continue to fall into this treatment abyss unless something dramatic is done.

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*Josh's story as told by his mum

My son Josh* is also still struggling and unfortunately, with the way things are, I feel like this is something that he may have to deal with his whole life. The mental health system in place to keep our youth alive is especially poor.

In South Australia we only have one psychiatric ward available for children to go to when they need help, which is at the Women's and Children's Hospital. Most of the time families are turned away after being assessed in emergency because the ward is usually full. These parents are then expected to be on suicide watch with the children until they are able to seek some help outside the hospital.

In this ward, no therapeutic interventions are given; the children are only there to get their medications back on track and are expected to seek therapy when they are released.

This has happened to me and my son several times, and we live and hour and a half away from the hospital.

I feel like parents feel guilty enough that our children are struggling with their mental health. If our child was to take their own life in our care, the guilt from that is something no parent should ever have to deal with.

As a single working mother I sometimes feel trapped in this situation, while also trying to raise my daughter who is now suffering with extreme anxiety, looking after the house, making sure everyone is feed and all the other things that need to be taken care of.

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*Claire's story as told by her mum

Claire* has just turned 18 and we have been trying to navigate this broken [mental health] system since she was 11 years old.

I would add my grave concerns regarding quality of care in adolescent mental health facilities and the potential serious side effects of the various medications prescribed by psychiatrists.

Our daughter suffers from acute OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] and generalised anxiety. She has been in out of numerous facilities across Sydney over the years interspersed with many presentations at the emergency department, waiting for hours to been seen and often being sent home with no support when she was clearly very unwell.

My daughter has experienced what I would describe as very good care at two facilities in Sydney and appalling care at several others.

Last year, she spent seven months in facility that was supposed to rehabilitate her back into the community. Sadly this led to a misdiagnosis, over-medication, dis-empowerment of the family and Claire's most successful suicide attempt three days after discharge. As a result of someone passing by and intervening, she was placed into an adult facility for 10 days as an involuntary patient and then transferred into other sub-standard adolescent facility.

She now has PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] as a result of her time in the facility. We too remain on suicide watch every day and night and are trying to wean her off anti-psychotics.

None of the many and varied medications my daughter has been prescribed have offered any long-term improvement but have caused many side effects such as psychosis, suicidal urges, mood disregulation, insomnia, nausea, weight gain, tachycardia and extreme sedation.

I have been a staunch advocate for my daughter and I am certain she would not still be alive if I hadn't stepped in on numerous occasions to put a stop to thoughtless reductionist approaches to my child’s care.

I have tried to take this matter of medical negligence to my local member, the official visitors at the hospital in question and the CEO of Mental Health Carers Association, but despite promises of action nothing has been done.

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*Chris' story as told by his mum

My son Chris* is 15 and is filled with anxiety and depression struggling to make it through the day.

He has previously attempted suicide and is still suicidal with thoughts so dark, I try and not really hear them although I listen, as it hurts beyond belief. Yet he was not hospitalised. The consultant said 'no'.

My mum came and helped with suicide watch; then came the medication. I'm not sure who’ve they given the greatest comfort to, Chris or I. 

However, the journey continues hourly. There you are holding it together for the rest of the family to have some normality and ensure our other kids don’t fall down and crumble.

I personally have found the CYMHS [Child and Youth Mental Health Service] team great and Chris is lucky to have psychologists -- three of them at his school -- who have all been fantastic at supporting him and I.

I have no doubt this support and the collaboration of everyone working together consistently has helped in getting him to school three days this week, which is a major achievement. Just getting out of bed was literally like a world war every morning for eight months until he had an attempt on his life, which bought everything to the surface. 

Kids needs support and they need to be confident and comfortable in accessing that support. It needs to be in schools as standard, brought in at grassroots, because that is where we need kids to be daily — learning, growing and development friendships that can help support them through tough times.

One of the poignant comments made by Chris came after R U OK Day. A speaker at his school talked about his mental health challenges, but after the talk finished it was back to class. This infuriated my son. He said, "So we get a talk on it, but that’s it - no time to discuss or share?" He's made a suggestion to the school to turn into a day of activities, and even to share his challenges. I hope his resilience is increasing.

I suppose the moment I realised this hell is impacting young people every day is when Chris was in the ED. They had been called ahead by the CYMHS team, and his details on the triage nurse's screen showed 'suicidal' in black and white letters — there was no escaping that. We’d been here before, but this time it was more confronting. 

I kept it together - not sure how - although I could feel everything was shaking from sheer panic. Also waiting to be admitted were two other suicidal teenagers, sitting among kids with dislocated collar bones, broken arms, glass in another child’s foot. But here there were three teenagers with breaks so invisible, it was impossible for any parent to see without the correct help. They were broken from the inside out, and my son one of them.

We know about mental health issues and that suicide happens in our communities, however it’s no longer acceptable to allow it to happen, especially to our kids -- so young and so innocent. Something has to change and quickly. More accessible help is needed.

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*Georgina's story as told by her mum

My 11-year-old daughter is currently undergoing psychological appointments under a Mental Health Care Plan for anxiety and suspected depression. My beautiful baby girl, who I still see glimpses of occasionally, is slowly being taken from me.

I have tried everything these last few months, from kinesiology to naturopathy with my last resort being seeing a GP, who casually said most of us experience anxiety at some point in our lives.

It was a relief to hear we were not the only family going through this. But by golly, I feel so alone in my search for a pathway that suits my daughter's needs. The whole arena of mental health seems very hard to navigate, and to find a treatment your child responds to is so elusive.

I wish I could help my baby, but I cannot, and that makes me so upset.

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*Emily's story as told by her mum

I have an 18-year-old and she is just my life; the most sweetest, caring beautiful soul you could ever ask for in a daughter. I fell pregnant with her when I was 23.

At four weeks pregnant, her father made the choice of not wanting to be a part of her life. I was determined to still give her a happy, healthy, fulfilling life where she would grow into a confident, happy, well-grounded young lady. Well, obviously that wasn’t meant to be.

Age seven is when things became really hard. Anxiety found a way into my sweet girl's life, and it has not left her since. If anything it has just grown, become stronger and has literally taken over her life. Our lives.

I tried everything to help her and my last resort was to medicate her. I didn’t want to do this but I had no choice, and yes, it did take the edge off her anxiety a lot of the time.

My daughter wouldn’t know or remember what it would be like to live a normal life. She has had anxiety for so long now, she doesn’t know any different.

I could tell you endless stories of the pain and profound struggles we have gone through, but one in particular really affected me. A few years back we saw a new psychiatrist and he changed her medication in a very abrupt and altering way. I actually questioned him with my concern. He assured me it will help her, and as a desperate mother wanting to help my child, I complied.

I don’t even have words to describe what my daughter went through after this. This new medication combination sent her over the edge. She was scared for her own life, became agoraphobic and would literally scream for me to 'save her'. I tried phoning the psychiatrist but he wouldn’t return any of my calls so my mum and I carried her into the car and rushed her to Westmead Children’s Hospital.

Upon arrival the triage nurse put her through pretty quick, which was a blessing as she had become so agoraphobic to the point of already not being at school for the previous four weeks.

For the first time in a long time I thought I could breathe a sigh of relief; she was going to finally get the help she needed. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be. The psychiatrist's nurse came up to assess Emily and decided they could not help her in any way — she was not physically harming herself and they only had eight mental health beds in the hospital which were already taken.

At this stage my daughter was screaming and begging for help, telling them she can't live like this anymore. They just said to go home and phone Headspace. What a f---ing joke.

I pleaded with them to keep her in, but to no avail. I was a single mum and couldn’t afford private health care. I had nowhere else to go.

I bawled my eyes out driving home from the hospital with my daughter laying in the back seat in a foetal position, begging for help. I felt I had truly failed her. Where did I go so wrong for her to end up like this? I did what the hospital had asked and phoned Headspace as soon as I got through the door.

We were told they couldn’t help, as they only look after mild to moderate and Emily is too severe.

I pretty much lost faith in humanity that day. My mum and I spent the day ringing every single mental health number possible to find help and every single one of them passed the buck. It was up to my mum and I to help her on our own.

It took months to get her healthy enough to attend school and leave the house, but we did it.

My daughter is now in Year 12 and completing her High School Certificate, something I never thought possible. Yes, she has a lot of absent days, many anxiety attacks at school and doesn’t study at all due to being so tired and mentally exhausted all the time, but I couldn’t be any more proud of her.

Unfortunately, for the past 12 months she has been really struggling. Her medications don’t seem to work any more, her quality of life is heartbreaking, and she is just not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

I won't lie, it has taken its toll on me too. I am still on my own with her and it's hard financially. We go without groceries to see the psychiatrist because I can't afford to do both. The guilt I feel is indescribable and on most days I feel like a failure of a mother.

Emily constantly asks me, "Am I ever going to get better, Mum?" and I promise her, "Yes". Because she will. The government and our health system may all suck when it comes to mental health, but I am dedicated and determined to make my daughter happy again, no matter what it takes.

We need more parents like us to come together and make people aware that the struggle is real and we need more help and services

Share your story by sending an email to Jo Abi at jabi@nine.com.au or via Instagram @joabi961 or Twitter @joabi

If you or someone you know is in need of help contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Kid's Helpline on 1800 551 800.

Read The Rest at #Mental Health Australia