A couple of years ago I found myself up to my eyeballs in chocolate selection boxes, mince pies and brand new toys and games. I was opening up the latest generous delivery to my work – a place for families and loved ones of Children and Young People with cancer to stay while their loved one received treatment. It was a really special and touching moment and it had a real impact on the families staying with us.
While unpacking and distributing the Christmas presents and donations I found myself thinking back to my time in hospital as a 14-18 year old over the Christmas and the school holidays. I spent the majority of those years in various hospitals being treated for what was diagnosed on my 2nd admission as Bipolar disorder. For some of this time I was detained or ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act and couldn’t leave the ward at all for days, weeks and even months. At other times I had some day leave or overnight leave and could spend a little less time on the ward. At a time where I normally would have been watching films in lessons, singing in the school choir or traipsing around the shops buying presents I wasn’t able to do any of these things. I found myself sat playing the same card games, wistfully thinking about the artful placement of the ‘christmas chicken’ on the Christmas tree (an inexplicable family tradition) and missing home more than ever.
Being in hospital is never easy but being in hospital over the holidays, when everyone else seems to be having the best time, is really difficult.
So, back to 2016 and having received these generous donations at my place of work, myself and my partner (co-founder Jasmine) decided to buy a few festive things and drop them into the local CAMHS inpatient service. I tried to think back to what myself and other inpatients had enjoyed or missed while we’d been on the ward over Christmas and the sort of things families and young people had been enjoying at my work. Being fresh out of university we didn’t have lots of money but we managed to get a couple of new games and art materials, some books and DVDs and a few bags of Christmas snacks and decorations.
We called in to check if this would be ok with the unit and found ourselves having to explain, a few times, what it was we wanted to do. ‘Just drop off some Christmas things for the kids’ I heard Jaz saying again on the phone. ‘My partner has Bipolar and was an inpatient as a teenager and we just thought it would be nice’. The staff on the ward were so surprised they were having trouble wrapping their heads round why we were dropping things to them. It never occurred to me or my colleagues working in a physical health setting that it was in any way strange to be receiving large donations of gifts and games. Of course people want to help Children and Young People with cancer and their families at Christmas. So why does it seem so alien that people would think to do the same for those in psychiatric wards?
Mental health awareness has come a long way, and it’s so heartening to see the open way in which people are beginning to talk about their experiences to each other, online and in the media. However, the more severe end of mental health – crises which result in hospitalisation, suicide attempts, severe psychosis and eating disorders – is still something people struggle with. Even more so when we think of things like that affecting children and young people below the age of 18. We don’t imagine that there are young people detained under the mental health act because they are so unwell they pose a serious risk to themselves or others. But there are currently roughly 1500 mental health beds in the NHS in England and many more in the private healthcare sector and at Christmas, many of these young people will be unable to leave hospital. Some will get some overnight leave, some may get day leave and others will be unable to leave the ward for the entirety of the Christmas period because they’re simply too unwell. Some young people may be in wards miles away from home, friends and family.
Deck the Wards has been created to provide home comforts and small ‘luxuries’ for Children and Young People who are in CAMHS inpatient settings over the holidays. We know that being in hospital is extremely difficult at any time of year, but that in the holidays it can feel even worse. Our aim is to replicate and share the generosity shown to children and young people with physical health conditions and to show that young people with mental health conditions are not forgotten.
We specifically want to provide items that make the holiday periods feel more bearable. Things that can make the time go quicker and that can support having some fun over the holidays, despite being in hospital. Items like new games and DVDs, luxury toiletries and vouchers for food for Christmas parties. We want to bring some of the joy and treats of Christmas and the holidays into the wards and make hospital feel a little bit less like hospital and bring in a little bit more of home.
Despite it being some of the most difficult times of my life I have some good memories of my time in CAMHS inpatient units, even at my most unwell. I remember sitting down in a big group and watching Bugsy Malone, staff and patients and making pancakes with the consultant on Shrove Tuesday. I remember cracking up racing space hoppers down the corridors with the other patients and nurses. I remember some of the nurses putting on a party, and getting to choose what cakes we wanted from M&S (seriously luxurious). These experiences didn’t make me forget what was happening, but they did make me smile. They made all of us smile. Those fun memories and that laughter made the ward seem a less difficult place to be and they made me feel, despite everything, like it was still Christmas.
Deck the Wards Co-Founder and Trustee