There is a group of ill children in hospital that probably never cross your mind. You won’t find them in slushy adverts or the subject of a charity single. Nor will A-list celebrities drop by their wards to wish them a Merry Christmas. They are mentally ill children and young people in inpatient psychiatric units. These children and young people are just like any in a hospital ward, they are away from home because they have an acute illness that needs specialist treatment. They don’t get the attention of celebrities or the tireless work of charities like kids with other illnesses do. For all intents and purposes mentally ill children and young people in hospital are all but forgotten at Christmas.
So what is it really like to spend Christmas in a CAMHS unit? I found out last year. If I gain nothing else from spending Christmas 2014 in hospital, at least I have some writing material to take away from it.
The setting was hardly festive; decorations on *Heron unit were extremely lacking since the unit tree had been taken away a few days before Christmas because the patients had found a way of extracting metal spikes from the artificial stem. There was no tinsel (ligature risk) and no lights. Staff did their best to make our isolated snowglobe world festive with activities and films- but there are only so many paper chain and toilet roll tube crafts that depressed teenagers can partake in before losing interest in Christmas entirely. The Wednesday before Christmas patients were told in X Factor audition style if they’d have time away from the unit over the holidays. Both joy and desperation were on the unit that day, but when Christmas itself came along everyone had a glazey-eyed determination to try and make it ‘OK’. The patients made a pact to try not to cause incidents and try to prevent the bellowing wail of the pinpoint panic alarm as much as we could.
We all woke up to a basket of fairly edible croissants from the kitchen. At around 9am the procession of relatives began to file through the locked doors of the unit. They wore smiles and laughs like uniform as they met their offsprings. There was no illusion- it was not going to be a typical Christmas for any of the families.
My Dad brought with him presents which I opened like every Christmas previous. These were then searched and risk assessed by a member of staff who placed half in the office for supervised use or safe keeping. One of the confiscated gifts was a tin of teabags because they weren’t decaffinated.
The only leave I had been granted was to go to church on 1:1 with a unit nurse. This was one of the best parts of the day as I had always found her easy to be around. I knew she was a strident atheist which made me somewhat jubilant with the hilarity of her accompanying me to church. I think she was a little overwhelmed by the clapping and singing and we ended up secretively giggling for the most part of the service.
I went back to the ward where I met my Dad for Christmas dinner. I was on a meal plan so the meal was compulsory. To quote my Dad: “It will take until new year to digest”. While our intestines struggled with the dinner we played board games; chess and monopoly. We attempted Cluedo but discovered that the unit set had had the knife confiscated for safety reasons.
By lunchtime I was really struggling. I found it difficult to be out of bed for any period of time. I fell asleep under my blanket on the floor. Dad left shortly after because it had clearly got a bit much for me. Several of the patients like myself had family over for only part of the day. Though our families understood we were ill we still felt a pressure to try to perform our way through the day. There was intense guilt for, if nothing else, putting them through the dinner! One girl on the ward’s family brought her tiny pet chihuahua to come and see her. The family then made the executive decision to go out for lunch but left the dog with their daughter and the adoring ward. I seem to remember we watched frozen and cooed over the chihuahua for the rest of the afternoon.
When all the families and relatives had made tracks the mood dropped, as it did most evenings. The kitchen staff had the night off so we had a strange assortment of pre-made samosas and egg sandwiches for dinner. No one enjoyed it or found it edible, we all laughed as we dissected strange lumps to try and work out what they consisted of. I don’t remember the rest of the night very well. The faces we had all put on to get through the day were beginning to crack and there were alarms and medication.
It wasn’t a bad day on the ward, it was actually quite a good one. But Christmas in hospital could not compare to Christmas at home. Spare a thought this Christmas for those in CAMHS units and their families. If you can, donate safe items to your local unit. Chocolate and cake always go down a treat- and teddies, games or a good DVD! Children and young people in psychiatric care are often forgotten about in comparison to children in general hospitals. We don’t get to hug celebrities or have charities to help us. Just knowing that someone donated something out of kindness could make a patient’s day. That was my Christmas last year. I hope this year will be better for myself and the others I spent last year with. I can also hope that anyone spending Christmas in the same way is safe and a tiny bit happy in the morning. They deserve it.