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'I was a suicidal teen - the NHS didn't know what to do with me'

'I was a suicidal teen - the NHS didn't know what to do with me'
From BBC - March 14, 2018

It was the ninth time in the space of 10 days that Sherry Denness had tried to kill herself. "It felt like checkmate - there were no open doors or other ways for my life to turn, I just wanted to die," she says.

Only just 18, Sherry has been diagnosed with a number of mental health conditions, including borderline personality disorder (BPD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

On seven of her nine suicide attempts, which took place in November last year, the teenager had landed in A&E, been patched up and deemed well enough to be sent home with no further help. Another time she'd taken all of her prescribed medication in one go and ended up in critical care for two days. But once the physical symptoms had been dealt with, to her parent's despair, she was simply discharged and sent home.

This time things turned out differently.

"When you are in mental health crisis, it feels like everything is just closing in on your brain like a clamp," she says.

"I was psychotic and I was hearing Kieran in my head telling me I need to leave the house." Kieran is one of the voices Sherry hears - the worst one, she says.

"When I am in that state, it is very hard to comprehend that the voices are not real. I hear him in my ears like I'd hear a real person. He will say, 'No-one likes you, no-one loves you, you are better off dead.'"

Under Kieran's influence, she quarrelled with her parents and stormed out of the house. A little later PC Pete Coe and PC Dan Ayrton found her on a pathway nearby, train tracks lying just ahead. They'd been alerted by a crisis team Sherry had called in her non-lucid state to ask about a place to live.

"It was a freezing cold evening and Sherry was sitting cross-legged on the floor, I remember there being a lot of blood because she was self-harming," says Coe. Sherry's clothes were scuffed from her attempts to scale the fence that stood between her and the train tracks.

After checking with a mental health professional at the local hospital, Coe used his police powers to section Sherry under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. "By sectioning Sherry we were able to do what we could to keep her safe and get her the help she clearly needed," Coe says. At the time, Sherry did not want to go with the police and resisted their attempts to help her. But now she thanks them for calming her down - and, she says, for saving her life.

When Sherry's mum, Andi, saw the blue lights of an ambulance from her kitchen, a cold tentacle of dread slipped around her stomach. She ran out of the house, fearing the worst. To see her daughter alive, and with the police, was a huge relief.

"When they told me they'd sectioned my daughter, I felt my legs go from beneath me and I cried like a two-year-old child because I was so grateful that she was finally going to get into hospital and get the help she so desperately needed," she explains. "Sherry is from a very loving family but she was not well so she hurt herself again, and again, and again. And each time they discharged her we were saying as parents, 'She needs to be in a hospital - she's not very well.'"

But things did not go smoothly even after she was sectioned. Once she'd been escorted by the police to A&E to treat her physical injuries she should have been transferred to a children's mental health unit.

But a shortage of beds meant Sherry landed in an adult ward at a hospital in Guildford, where her parents say she was propositioned by a male patient in his 50s. So she was then transferred to a secure children's mental health unit in Sheffield, 160 miles away. It was the only place that was available.

She was eventually transferred from Sheffield to another hospital in Guildford, close to her home, and there she began to feel more lucid and positive. She was discharged at the end of November and is now back at home with her family.

Sherry has spent nearly a year of her life in mental health facilities.

She was 11 when she was first assessed by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs). "They took my mum aside and told her I was just an attention seeker and they did not take it seriously," she remembers. Eventually, at 13, she was given treatment for ADHD, but by then children at her school had already begun to bully her.

At school, Sherry was often kicked out of class for disruptive behaviour and spent most of her time in isolation. "I could not concentrate and no-one listened to what I was saying," she says. "When you have ADHD it feels like everything is going 10 million times faster than normal and you do not understand why people around you are so calm." Sherry struggled to make friends and became increasingly isolated. She began self-harming at 13 and was first sectioned by the police at 14. At that point Sherry's parents decided to take her out of school.

The family feels Camhs has let Sherry down for years now.

After she was finally sectioned in November her parents made a viral video in which her dad, Chris, tells the story of those horrific 10 days by holding up a series of messages drawn on paper. He then asks people to show they care about her - and about other young people struggling to get treatment for mental health problems - by getting involved in a social media campaign under the hashtag #wecaresherry.

"We started the campaign to give Sherry hope because she thought that nobody cared," Chris says. But the family are also calling for changes in the way Camhs operates.

For example, they argue that A&E is no place for a child having a mental health episode - though that is where Camhs advises them to go.

"Getting Sherry to A&E when she's in a heightened state is a nightmare," says Chris. "Normally we have to call the police to get her there." Both parents have been trained in safe restraint but have to take shifts because her physical strength when she is distressed can be overpowering.

They tell me about six-hour waits, unsympathetic security staff and receptionists who are openly exasperated at seeing Sherry back in A&E again.

"I have been to A&E a lot of times for self-harm and suicide attempts and parents of little kids will look at you in disgust and shuffle their kids away because they can see you are holding your arm or your leg," Sherry says. "It's not nice and it makes you feel even worse. You sit there for hours and hours until they can get a Camhs person to come and see you."

In the 10 days that Sherry attempted to kill herself nine times, she was seen by 18 different healthcare professionals, ranging from staff from A&E to Camhs. But none provided the help she needed to address the cause of her problems. The family says the threshold for accessing this help is too high.

They are also calling for more investment in Camhs and better training for the staff young people experiencing a mental health crisis might come into contact with, including teachers, the police, paramedics and A&E doctors and nurses. They'd also like to get the message out that early intervention is key.

"A lot of this could have been avoided if I'd got the help I needed sooner," says Sherry.

Where to get help

The family has received hundreds of messages of support from parents and young people who say they have had experiences similar to Sherry's. The video, meanwhile, has now been watched more than five million times.

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