Louise Hughes is one of our Story of Care Ambassadors. This is the fifth in a series of blogs exploring her experience of care. The first one is about being a sibling in care. The second one is about being a Christian in care. The third one is about education and care. The fourth one is about stigma and care.

Mind, the mental health charity, say that one in four people will experience a mental health problem in England in any given year. A study in 2018 found that one in nine children will suffer from a mental health problem between the ages of 5 and 15. Children in care and care leavers have been found to be at much greater risk of suffering from poor mental health than their peers. Around 45% of children in care have a mental health disorder that is diagnosable and up to 80% have mental health concerns.

A report* published in 2002 found that once a child or young person is placed in care of the local authority, access to services – especially mental health – is poor. This is often due to “poor communication between health and social care and other agencies” (p.42). The report also found that care leavers are particularly vulnerable too, “with many having serious mental health problems but finding it hard to get appropriate help.” (ibid). Findings by Luke, Sinclair, Woolgar and Sebba (2014) found that children and young people raised in residential homes compared to foster homes have the highest rates of mental health problems with 75% meeting a psychiatric diagnosis (p19).

Nadhim Zahawi is quoted as saying:

Children in care are some of the most vulnerable in society and have often experienced traumatic events, so it is vital they receive care and support that is tailored to their needs.

So why are children in care and care leavers being let down?

I have, and do, suffer from my own mental health difficulties. I’m also care experienced. I meet the 50% who meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health disorder. According to Shelia Redfern, I was (and am) “highly vulnerable to emotional and relationship difficulties, putting them at risk of long-term mental health issues…”

My own difficulties started when I was around 14, however, no one paid any attention to them. They thought I was being a “typical teenager”. The mess in my brain came out by my bedroom being an utter pigsty, my personal hygiene was put on the backburner and my relationships kept breaking down. I first wanted to go to a doctor when I was about 17, however, living in care – I didn’t want to tell my foster carers about why I wanted to go to the doctor. Or even ask to make an appointment.

When did I first get help? When I was 23. I’m now 25. I had broken down in a friend’s living room and they told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to see a doctor. I hadn’t been to see a doctor in over six years because of a paranoid fear I have of them. But I needed to go and so I did. I wrote down all my symptoms and feelings and he instantly diagnosed me with depression and anxiety.

A few months later, I was seeing a new GP (because I couldn’t get an appointment with the one who had initially diagnosed me) and I asked him to send me to the mental health team for an assessment. but he didn’t want to even though I could feel myself getting worse.

Research suggests that mental health conditions can run in families. My birth mum was very ill with her mental health so I was extremely worried that I was going to have the same condition and fights with life that she did. The main reason I wanted to see the mental health team is because I wanted a solid yes or no answer as to whether I had the same condition my mum had. Ultimately, they said yes.

I’m now getting help and support for my mental health but I should have got it much earlier. Life wouldn’t have been so much of a struggle if, maybe, I’d been seen by a doctor or simply been believed that I was actually depressed. Children in care and care leavers need to be believed and seen by medical professionals about their mental wellbeing as well as their physical wellbeing.

*The Mental Health of Looked-After Children, Bright Futures: Working with Vulnerable Young People