Tuesday, February 14, 2017


We've been awaiting a new placement since Romeo went back to his disorganised mother.

We worried about him for some time, his mum is all over the place, but it's so what he wanted. He's a tough nut, he'll be ok.

The phone rang.

"Would you consider taking a child who...?"

The child isn't a child actually, he's older than that. Mind you, most foster children are somehow older than their years. However this young fellow shaves.

His story is this;

He's the offspring of what used to be called a mixed marriage. I believe the current preferred term is British African. A child could be British Indian or British Asian and so on, I imagine there are any number of variants. I remember my grand-dad used to be against what he called mixed marriages. He was a kind man, he said "It's not fair on the children". That was back in the sixties, and I knew what he meant. Things, you would think, have changed, but apparently not enough; the child isn't sure who he is. He found it hard to make friends round his way. He feels he doesn't belong.

I remember thirty years ago visiting a special unit for disturbed teenagers and was struck by the high percentage of youngsters who were as described above.

Our new boy, I'm going to call him Glen, is one such.

Glen has depression.

That simple fact was clear from the information we were emailed about him before I said yes.

We've worked with plenty of children who found the circumstances of going into care upsetting. Many others had complicated feelings which were more entrenched since they'd experienced difficulties in their real home over a period of time.

Glen is the first foster child we've had who deserved the diagnosis that he is more than sad and upset, he's depressed.

As a society we are afraid of mental illness as if it means danger, or maybe is contagious. A lot of people still think there's shame attached, not just to the person who has the illness, but to those around them who might have been part of the cause. Parents of children with mental illness suffer a lot of unnecessary guilt and suspicion, as if they don't have enough on their plate.

Are we worried that Glen might represent any kind of danger? No.

We went through his profile with a fine tooth comb with our social worker. Glen has no anger issues, quite the reverse; he has difficulty exerting himself in any way, perhaps because he has very low self esteem.

He does not appear to be a danger even to himself; there has been no self-harm. Definitely no talk of taking his own life.

He stays in his room as much as possible, so to begin with we're letting him eat up there. He ventures out when the family are all at school and at work, and so long as it's just me. I keep off his case, don't barrage him with questions and stuff. I try not to put my foot in it. He gets more comfortable each day.

My job is to keep him on his medication; mild, but always under review, and to get him to therapy twice a week; one is a one-on-one with his counsellor, the second session is group. We'll get him into education if and when it's right for him.

I've been Googling like crazy (sorry, I'll re-phrase that - see how easy it is to put your foot in it...)

Try again;

I've been Googling day and night; all the latest thinking about mental illness in young people. The apparent increase, especially in teenage men, is shocking. Whatever the reasons, even if one of those reasons is that we are only just learning to identify those who are affected, it's soon going to be as big an issue as the surge in dementias among our older citizens.

Centuries ago the human race was almost wiped out by diseases of the body. Nowadays we are so much better at tackling what used to be called plagues.

In a century's time we might be on top of the causes and proper treatments of the mental illnesses that are now starting to overwhelm our young.

The thing I'm starting to believe is that while most physical ailments fit into a neat category, with an equally neat prescribed treatment; the fact is that I think every mental illness is as unique as the person. And as if that's not complicating things enough; I believe the illness changes not just from day to day, but almost in the blink of an eye. I'm talking about more than mere mood swings here.

What to do then, for Glen and other looked after-children like him?

I don't know. Keep up the love. Be patient and understanding. Look after my own happiness (being at home all day with no-one to talk to but someone whose take on reality is askew can be a bit gruelling).

Look after my family's happiness.


  1. I'm glad your room is filled, although I wonder if you are sharing my current predicament? We got a referral the other day, might be too close in location to birth family so waiting to hear. I'm thrilled at the prospect of another addition to our family, but not as much as I should be, because if this child comes then we won't have room for Skywalker if he came back up. We'll welcome referral with open arms and hearts, but I know I'll be gutted in Skywalker's placement breaks down and we can't have him. I wonder if you are feeling the same way about Romeo?

    Anyway my reason for writing is two fold. One to say its great that you recognise the impact this child's depression might have on you and your family. We call it "the mood hoover", meaning people who change the mood of the whole house by just being there (usually by sucking all the joy or peace out of it). Sometimes this is on purpose (sulky teen who wants everyone to feel bad because they are in a mood) or accidental (someone who is depressed and who you can't help).

    Secondly, and you may have already found this on google, but I know a member of my family found two things helpful - the book "I Had a Black Dog" which made the person realise they were not alone, and the other was volunteering with people worse off than them. Getting out and being useful and needed really swung it for my family member. They helped out with a charity doing odd jobs, shopping and providing companionship for vulnerable old people. After a few weeks they realised the old folks really relied on them and this gave the family member a reason to get out of bed everyday, knowing that Dot or Doris needed someone to fetch them a newspaper, share the excitement of the weekly scratch card, or replace the batteries in the TV remote. Perhaps in time your new young person might find something that gives them a reason to get out of their room. If they aren't into dealing people (teens often aren't) then local animal shelters always need dog walkers!

    1. Thank you Mooglet, those are very useful thoughts.
      We've always worried that a child that goes home might need us again, actually it's only happened once and we managed to fit everyone in. Glen'd need is definite and immediate so he gets the nod. We've hit on the phrase 'expensive' to describe the cost to us of having someone who has the Black Dog, what we are describing is emotional cost. At the moment we can afford the charges.
      You second thought is on the button. Early days for him yet, but we've sounded out a local charity that helps the homeless and we're keeping that strategy up our sleeve.
      Thanks again!

  2. Hiya,

    Just wanted to comment here as someone with significant personal experience of mental illness as a teenager. And a new foster parent!

    What you said about 'every mental illness is as unique as the person' is absolutely right. Every person with a mental illness needs to be completely accepted as who they are in the specific way their illness presents itself. There are no 'rules of thumb' but talking to others with a similar experience can really help.

    For me, being depressed was like being stuck down a deep, dark well without a ladder. Try to show him that the ladder exists, look for any glimmer of enjoyment and join in with that, even if it's just watching a film with him and eating crisps for a while.

    What I would say to you (and I think you've got it anyway) is have patience - that's so important! Meet him on his level (which you're doing) to gently tease him out of his head. Keep offering outings, food, tea, time with you, time outside, gently, gently in whatever way he responds to. Some days he will be able to cope, to come with you, to do something simple like looking after his own hygiene. Some days he won't. He needs to fight those voices that say he can't do it. It's a triumph every time he gets out of his room - and it's also extremely scary for him! So it's right that you take it easy, don't bombard him, just be there.

    I think young men (and all men) often get depressed and turn in on themselves, because they're socialised not to show emotion and to be strong at all times. Just accept his feelings, empathise and show him it's OK to feel what he's feeling.

    The last thing to say is that I only got better when I decided to try and get out of the well - when I decided to climb the ladder. It may be the same for him. But you can offer him the motivation, an alternative way to live, the loving environment he needs to make that choice.

    Again, with 'look after my own happiness' you're right - do look after yourself! You can't help him if you don't keep your own energy and positivity levels topped up. Don't take anything he says personally, he is probably not really able to get out of his own head much of the time and he's trying as hard as he can just to stay above water.

    I wish you all the luck in the world, and keep on doing what you're doing!

  3. Thanks for your advice from the front line Newfostermum. So sorry to hear what you went through. I guess it helps you know the signs in others and in yourself, and you're better equipped than most to know what to do. Like what they say about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Must be absolutely horrible. Well done for climbing the ladder.
    Good point about patience. Not just when a conversation deteriorates into little grunts before total silence, but in knowing that depression takes months maybe years to see some sort of improvement.
    Like you say, we're looking after ourselves too.