What's your favourite thing about Christmas? With markets galore, Christmas carol singing, parties and quality time with friends and family Christmas really can be 'the most wonderful time of the year'.
But what about when it isn't? I think back to a cold October day when I was 14 and all of a sudden I was on my way to a psychiatric hospital. One day I was marching on with a classic teenager's routine: up, dressed, breakfast, school, home, dinner, bed. All the while avoiding spending as much time as possible with my parents of course. Not yesterday though. Yesterday I had made a serious attempt on my life. I tried, it failed and I was in such a place that I didn't see how it would be a big deal. I only mentioned it in passing to my psychiatric nurse. It didn't occur to me that it would set in motion a long and difficult hospital admission, unfortunately one in many.
Anyway, it was October and the clocks had just gone back. I was now an inpatient on a child and adolescent unit. A psychiatric ward is a strange bubble. It's very clinical, there are endless locks on locks and every wall has an emergency alarm. There are regimental meals, meetings with doctors, medication and bedtime at 10pm sharp. There were 12 beds: 12 children and young people with 12 different stories. 12 different sets of symptoms. It was a strange place.
Halloween came and went and the world shifted its gaze towards Christmas. After fireworks night the countdown started rolling on in earnest. But this was a psychiatric ward, so far removed from the rest of the world. While our friends and families were out and about enjoying the build up we were stuck inside. Some of the children and young people had some leave from the ward; perhaps they could go out with friends and family. Others had no leave at all. Some were legally detained in hospital - this is known as being sectioned.
As Christmas drew closer the TV always reminded us of it. The adverts endlessly snowing and a smiling Father Christmas on the back of a lorry. There were so many things that didn't occur to me about Christmas on the ward. We couldn't have any tinsel as it was a 'high risk' item - the same with lights. All our games were fairly old and outdated and we played them to death. There are only limited times you can play operation and, in my case, only limited times I could lose spectacularly.
As the day gets closer and closer other things change. CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) wards all have some sort of provision for education to try and keep people in touch with their schoolwork. These had lessons everyday and got us off the main ward. There can also be groups such as art and music therapy, yoga and psychology. These groups make a real difference. They break up the day and provide a good distraction, spending some time thinking about something other than mental illness. But then Christmas is on the horizon and the education and groups stop for the holidays. You go from having some variation and things to focus on to long dark days stretching in front of you with what feels like constant reminders of all the fun things you're not doing. It's really hard.
And then wham: the day itself. Some patients may have a little bit of leave for the day and, if they're really lucky, may have had the night before too. But most of us were on the ward. Waking up on the ward felt extremely hard. Father Christmas hadn't visited us and the tired plastic tree felt more depressing than it would have been to just not have a tree at all.
The staff really made an effort to lift our spirits with Christmas music and jumpers. I remember a nurse grabbing my hands and whirling me down the corridor laughing with music blasting out from a massive speaker. I couldn’t help but smile and join in! The staff tried their hardest with the little resources they had, and it was massively appreciated. It’s what made it bearable and we all managed a smile and a laugh. We even got a card and some chocolate coins from the consultant - very snazzy! The nurses sat us all down and gave us our present from the ward and there was a cooked breakfast being served.
Even with this, we could all feel lonely and forgotten. Being a child or young person in hospital can feel like the whole world forgets about you. There's so much stigma around mental illness that even those who do know you're there can often have negative or stereotypical views of what you and the hospital look like (think padded cells, straitjackets etc). These negative stereotypes of wards and patients were very different to my experiences on the ward. We all got along with each other as best we could and there was sense of camaraderie. Despite our different experiences and what we were going through, we pulled together with the staff to try and have a good day. The little bubble we were in was trying to have a good time, but the outside world seemed a long way away.
These were my experiences of being a young person on a hospital ward. That loneliness is what Deck the Wards hopes to fill at least in part.
Deck the Wards came into fruition in the hope of reaching out to CAMHS wards and the children and young people in them to help bring some of the joys of the season to them. We work with wards to compile lists of things that would improve the holidays on the ward. This can range from boardgames to badminton sets, basketballs to karaoke machines and musical instruments. We ask that the lists are made by the service users themselves as we want them central to decision-making, meaning we're getting things they actually want. We can't make it all go away or find a cure to offer, but what we hope to do is make those difficult days and weeks a little bit better.
Deck the Wards is growing year on year and we are reaching out to more and more wards. We are proud to support more and more children and young people as time goes on and we hope we will be able to support even more this Christmas. Every share and like to spread the word makes a difference. We want the children and young people we work with to know that they are not forgotten, and that the holidays can be a bit more special and a bit more manageable, even on the ward. I can genuinely say that everything people offer to support us makes a real, tangible difference to children and young people. We are so grateful to the many generous supporters who have helped us Deck the Wards this Christmas.