Recently I looked after a mental health patient. They were admitted to our ward after having been assessed by the out of hours mental health worker and were waiting for a formal review by the psychiatric team. This happens uncomfortably often on the paediatric ward and really highlights the rise in mental health problems in young people.
As a medical doctor, I saw this young person on the paeds ward round that morning. This was a teenager, a child who was so distressed, terrified and overwhelmed by their own thoughts. Their face was emotionless, yet their eyes full of sadness and fear. The room was silent. The curtains still drawn.
In that moment, I saw the fifteen year old me staring up from under the covers. Exhausted. Vulnerable. Hurting.
I knelt down by the side of the bed and listened. As the patient talked I moved closer. I held their hand. I stayed there.
Some would say this was not in my remit as a medic. After all, I had been told to “go in, say a quick hello and make sure they were medically fit before psych come”. But in that moment, there was no way I was leaving.
So I stayed and I did and said all the things I wish the professionals had said to me the first night I was in hospital at that age. And once the young person felt safer, only then did I leave.
As soon as I had closed the door, the emotions were overwhelming. Tears poured down my cheeks as I ran towards the doctors’ office. The junior trainee followed me in, sensitively checking I was OK.
I have been pretty honest about my struggles at work- people know that I have had serious mental health problems and talking has helped break down the stigma. As I sat crying, the two junior trainees with me were incredible. I told them my story. I told them about my admission aged 15 to a psychiatric hospital. I told them I had been suicidal. I told them I had had anorexia… And they listened.
They listened without judging as I explained that I had wanted to open up to the patient. I had wanted to expose my vulnerability and highlight that mental illness is all around us; that they truly weren’t alone. But it seemed wrong; as though I would have been crossing an invisible line between doctor and patient; as though it was a deeply unprofessional thing to do.
My colleagues told me otherwise. They empowered me, they believed in me and they encouraged me to do what felt right.
So later that morning I popped back to the young patient’s cubicle. I knocked, went in and sat on the edge of the bed. I asked permission to tell them something personal that I had never told a patient before but I thought it was important for them to know. They looked confused but agreed.
And so I did it. I explained to the child that at the same age, I had been depressed, I had thought about ending my life and that mental illness is all around us, we just don’t know about it. They were not alone. There was hope that things could be different.
As I stood to leave, the patient whispered
“Please can I have a hug?”
That hug will be one I carry with me forever.