It isn't normal SR policy to publish pieces anonymously, but we have made an exception in this case. The following was received from a worried reader:
Tonight he sits on his phone – I don't know who he's chatting to, or the conversation. I'm scared but I can't ask again – I've already asked a few times tonight in different guises: 'who you chatting to?' 'Oh, is that...?' I have also asked 'how are you?' more than once and he is starting to get annoyed – as I am with the standard response of 'fine'.
Two nights ago, after a tip from another mum, for the third time my 14-year-old son told me he wanted to kill himself: 'There's nothing for me, this world is a mess'. I was again speechless. why would someone like my son feel this way? To meet my son, you would never guess how much he struggles – he's bright, articulate and funny, a straight A student. The teachers give excellent reports and say he can light up a room….he is the child that people go and sit beside when they are having a bad day… So where does the darkness come from? I wish I knew.
I know that my son has been struggling on occasion and I took him to the doctor some months ago when he had self-harmed, not seriously, just a minor mark on his wrist. Once was enough for me though. Whilst in the doctors, he admitted to having existential crises during the night, when he tries to understand why he exists. He then also admitted that he had contemplated suicide. I was shocked – I had no idea. He was my sweet confident, caring son. The doctor referred my son and several months later we received a letter asking if he still needed the appointment. He seemed so much better and we nearly cancelled when it came through, but I'm glad we didn't.
We confirmed that we still wanted the appointment, on the understanding that if he felt better we would cancel when it came though. The following Sunday I was using his computer for work while my son was out. My son's relationship had recently ended (as relationships between teenagers often do) and a text from the girl popped up, saying 'I can't do this anymore….this is goodbye'. I was surprised and, to be honest, thought it was a bit of a dramatic, strange message, so I clicked on it. What I saw in the trail of messages left me stunned.
Without going into too much detail, the result of their conversation was a pact – she would not self-harm if he did not. As bad as that was, worse followed. The two had a suicide pact – the girl was intending to kill herself and my son had said that if she did, so would he. Not only that, he had been ready to do it in school that day but a teacher had moved him on. I was at a total loss. How could this have been happening?
When I spoke to my son about the messages, he admitted it all, and said that yes, he had intended to kill himself that day. He was so matter of fact about it, as if I had just asked him about the weather. He had promised the girl that if she committed suicide, he would too. He told me: 'Mum, you have always taught me that promises should be kept'. I said: 'Yes, but not at the cost of your life'.
I spoke to the Child Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) the very next day and they were fantastic. Over the coming days it was established that my son had pacts with not one, but two girls within the school, and this practice was quite common, as was the thought of committing suicide or self-harm. In fact, there have been many other reported cases within the school. My son's guidance teacher was very surprised when I let him know what was happening. What was so thought-provoking (and weirdly reassuring) from the conversation we had, was that the teacher noted how much more time the staff now spend on dealing with mental health issues, bullying, and issues caused via social media.
There's an app called 'Tellonym' which allows kids to ask a question and people can answer anonymously. I have seen a screenshot of one of these messages, sent to one of my son's friends, where the person asked, 'what do you think of me' – an innocent enough question. The answers were far from it: 'I think you should kill yourself, the sooner the better, I will drive you to a bridge'. What on earth is going on in some kids minds? I should mention that several months previously my son also had a call from an anonymous number. He didn't pick it up, but they were kind enough to leave a message asking my son to slit his wrists. We reported it to the police but they couldn't do anything as the number was blocked.
The social media issue is massive. There have been many articles written on the dangers of social media, advising of the risks and how to get your child to step away from their phone. To do so is no mean feat, I can tell you. My son has never been a problem, behaviourally, but when I wanted to take his phone into my room for the night, you would have thought I was going to kill him – it was like the end of the world was nigh. It turned out that it was not because he was super-attached to his phone – it was because he thought he needed
to be at the end of the phone in case one of his friends decided they needed him in the middle of the night. He didn't want them to kill themselves because he wasn't there for them.
So much has happened over the last few months: telephone discussions with the school, appointments with CAMHS, and the incident the other day when he had again said he was going to kill himself to one of his friends.
CAMHS, however, is under an immense amount of pressure. National Services Scotland and NHS Education Scotland produce statistics on the service in Scotland. From October 2017 to September 2018, a staggering 34,112 children or adolescents were referred to the service. CAMHS review the referrals and 7,399 were rejected. That means a staggering 26,713 of our children were in need of this service. That is 26,713 too many for me. What has happened to our children? We need to take notice, and we need to take action.
One of the first things the CAMHS counsellor advised was to put controls on my son's phone – to effectively shut down all the apps whilst allowing calls though in case of emergency. The recommended amount of sleep for a teenager is nine hours. When my son was going to bed I thought he was sleeping, but it turns out this was not the case. It hasn't been easy for me, or my son. There is often the question 'Can I just extend this one thing for another 15 minutes?', but we are slowly working towards stepping away from the phone. Believe it or not, they don't advise that you just take it away – that had been my first thought. I don't think this is the only solution, but I'm certainly telling all my friends with children to take the phones off them before bed.
I don't know what else we can do. I'm still at an early stage in the process so I don't know all the answers, I wish I did. I've even bought a book on how to raise a teenager – desperate times and all that. I also don't know what the future holds for my son. I can only hope that with the support that he is getting we can get through this together and emerge stronger. I hope that he'll progress into a happier life, but I am no longer sure. Most of the time I am just watching and waiting and asking the same question: 'Are you okay?', hoping for an answer that's more than 'fine'.