Imogen hunched in a hospital room wearing a fake top hat. She doesn't know the picture is taken and holds a disposable cup with a drink in.

Inside a Children’s Psychiatric Unit At Christmas


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.

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 experience 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. Lights and tinsel weren’t an option for safety reasons so the only thing markedly indicating it was christmas was the occasional clipart snowman taped to the walls. 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. At ward round the Wednesday before Christmas patients were told in X Factor audition style if they’d have time away from the unit over the holidays. We all awaited our turn in the communal area, trying to interpret the mood of patients after they’d received their verdict while jumping at every noise thinking it was the ward round room door opening. I knew I wasn’t going home, I didn’t really have a home and my nearest relative was 300 miles away, which made the ward round experience that week somewhat easier. There was both joy and desperation on the unit that day, but when Christmas itself came along everyone had a glazy-eyed determination to try and make it ‘OK’ for ourselves. We patients made a pact to try not to cause incidents and try to prevent the bellowing wail of the panic alarm as much as we could- for the sake of christmas.

We all woke up to a basket of fairly edible croissants from the kitchen. At around 9am a procession of relatives were ushered in through the locked doors of the unit. They wore smiles and laughs like uniform as they met their offsprings, most of them experiencing the most unusual christmas they’d ever had.

My lovely Dad had traveled the 300 miles to be with me, staying as the only guest in a nearby Premier Inn on Christmas Eve. He brought with him presents which I tried to open like every Christmas previous, but with lorazepam distinctly blanketing any joy. I tried my best. There was then a knock at the door, and a member of staff appeared to apologetically search the items and remove any they felt could be dangerous. This ended up being about half of the gifts, including a tin of teabags which were condemned because they weren’t decaffeinated.

 The only leave I had been granted was to go to church on a 1:1 with a 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. We ended up secretively giggling for the most part of the service.

I went back to the ward where I met my Dad again for Christmas dinner. I was on a meal plan so the meal was compulsory and had to be eaten. In solidarity my Dad declined dinner at his hotel and joined me in the meal, commenting to one of the nurses that: “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 mid afternoon I was really struggling. I found it difficult to be out of bed for any period of time due to my medication, which I was receiving four times a day. I couldn’t fight it anymore, and fell asleep under my blanket on the floor. Dad left shortly after because it had clearly got a bit much for me and visiting hours were ending. Though our families understood we were ill we still felt a pressure to try to perform our way through the day. Talking to the other patients we all felt an intense guilt for, if nothing else, putting them through the dinner let alone a psychiatric ward christmas! 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 on the unit. 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 the 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 lots of alarms and medication.

It wasn’t a bad day on the ward as far as days there went, it was actually quite a good day. 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 own a business, call your local unit and offer a donation if you’d like to: chocolate and cake always go down a treat, or teddies, games or a ‘U’ rated DVD. Children and young people in psychiatric care are often forgotten about in comparison to children in general hospitals. 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 wherever they are. I can also hope that anyone spending Christmas in the same way is safe and has a tiny hint of happiness in the morning. They deserve it.

7 thoughts on “Inside a Children’s Psychiatric Unit At Christmas

  1. I can 110% relate to this. Christmas and all other celebrations on a CAMHS unit are rubbish, and people should definitely be more aware. But we all have the rest of our lives-make it a good one. All the best lovely x

  2. I have played piano at the hospital for the sad families. Needed lots of meds to do it! Tonight I play at two churches with the kind help of Lexapro and Lorazepam! Joy to the world….arrrrgh! Haha my hands are shaking already! I still love Jesus though. Thank Him for our therapy animals.

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