By Nina Martynchyk
My friends are, and have always been, my ‘rock’. Over the past seven years, which has included a year-long hospitalisation for Anorexia, moving schools and five foster placements, my friends have always been a source of support and stability in my life. Even if my placement was highly neglectful (one of my carers had a very hard time accepting she had to cook for me – I was 14 when I moved in with her), I was lucky enough to have a friend who started taking me home every Friday for dinner.
The Association for Young People’s Health states “we think that young people deserve more recognition for the skills and expertise required to provide the kind of support they are already giving.” I couldn’t agree with this statement more.
My friends were (and still are) the people I would go to if I had a problem, and who I could trust cared about me. When I was in hospital, they would come and visit me as much as they could. One nurse even said “I’ve never seen somebody being visited by as many friends.”
It’s my friends that have helped give me a sense of belonging and love when it was so lacking in my home life.
Despite the fact that seeing my friends in hospital was slightly awkward, we found a way to make our time together as fun as possible. I remember one friend bringing in his guitar and thinking it would be funny to entertain me by playing ‘Old McDonald Had A Farm’. It was bizarre, but it did make me laugh a lot. Another friend would bring me movies and we spent many afternoons in my hospital bed watching them together (despite the fact that we were breaking many ‘health and safety’ regulations). Hearing stories from friends about what was going on in their social lives played an important role in reminding me that there were nice, fun ‘teenage’ things going on outside hospital, that I could take part in when I got out. Hospital wasn’t an easy time, but having friends from my ‘old’ life come and visit definitely helped to give me a sense of normality.
Admittedly, despite being very close to my friends, I did find it tricky to tell them that I was going into hospital. I didn’t know what to say or how to explain what was going on. This was partly down to the fact that I found everything that was going on really confusing. One of my best friends recalls how I didn’t tell her that I was being admitted to hospital until the day before she left to go on a two-week holiday to Malaysia. To be honest, I didn’t even mention anything to the majority of my other friends.
I also found it hard to be direct and open with them about how I was feeling when I was in hospital. Another of my best friends remembers how she found it really hard to support me, as I would end up cancelling most of our visits without explaining why. I wish I had been more open with her and explained that it was down to the depression I was suffering, which often made it very hard for me to hold conversations.
Looking back, I wish I had been more open with my friends. What I would say to someone going into inpatient treatment is try to be as open as you can with the people that you trust. There is absolutely no shame in having a mental health problem, and in needing to be admitted to hospital. Saying something simple and not too detailed, along the lines of “I’m really not in a very good place right now and need more intense help than I’m getting at home” can be one way to ease into a conversation about being admitted to hospital. Especially if a more detailed and in-depth conversation would feel uncomfortable.
I would probably have made a list of code words that my friends knew about, to represent different emotions. Explaining to a friend that I felt depressed using a code word would probably have felt less daunting than going into things in more depth. Also, it can be very hard for friends who aren’t experiencing, or haven’t experienced, mental health problems to know what to say or do to help. I wish I had created a ‘toolkit’ of helpful things my friends could have done or said when they visited me, as it would have probably helped them feel less confused about how to act when they saw me.
Even though the support from my school friends was invaluable and helped me feel less lonely, the friendships I made during treatment also played a huge role in making me feel less isolated. CAMHeleon is completely right when it says that “Ward companionships (when appropriate and supervised by staff) can be very powerful to young people.” The friends I made during my stay in hospital definitely made me feel like I wasn’t alone in what I was going through, and that there were people who really understood how I was feeling. Some of the closest friends I have now are the ones I met in hospital. One of my best friends, who I still see often, met me in the waiting room as I was about to be admitted up to the ward. We randomly started a conversation, exchanged numbers and four years later on, we’re still in regular contact. I was also very touched to be invited to the wedding of another friend I met during my first week in hospital. We developed a very strong bond while we were on the ward, and I remember her writing me a letter when she was about to go on a week-long home leave and giving me a massive hug before she left. I definitely had a lot of fun with her too, even if we weren’t always the best-behaved patients when we were together!
Even though the friends I met in hospital were going through really difficult times, I feel very blessed that they supported and stood by me at a time when I was barely able to support myself. I am also so grateful to my school friends for showing me how much they cared about me and for doing what they could to make me feel better, whether it was by playing nursery rhymes on a guitar or travelling across London to see me.
This blog relates to the Family and Friends theme – click here to take a look
Here are a few extracts…
The world of a young person experiencing mental health problems can be a starkly lonely, isolated one. When a young person is in hospital, there’s a need to keep in contact with existing friends, as well as making new ones on the ward. Friendships can be a wonderful source of emotional strength for young people, and may help develop their self-confidence. In fact, there’s lots of evidence that peer groups can have many positive influences on young people, including: having a focus, making good decisions and adopting prosocial-behaviour.
Friendship is an important part of everyone’s life, but to a young person having friends and being accepted can be a matter of all-consuming concern. Peer acceptance is linked to a better sense of belonging and fewer behavioural problems, while the fostering of friendships eases feelings of loneliness. Peer support can help to take away shame and embarrassment, it can let young people know they’re not alone and that they don’t have to suffer silently.
Peer relationships may be more important to young people than parents, and asking them about their friends may help you work out the setting of their presenting problems. A young person often looks for validation from their peer group, rather than from the adults in their lives, and in the early teenage years – there’s a strong sense of peer group ideology.
Young people use companionship to find their own voice, learn about sharing and feel accepted for who they are as a person, rather than who they are as a family member or client. Ward companionships (when appropriate and supervised by staff) can be very powerful to young people, and it’s likely they will look for acceptance within their ward peer group.
About the author
Hi, I’m Nina. I’m 20 years old and will soon be starting university to study Psychology. I’m passionate about spreading awareness of mental health and the foster care system. My interest in inpatient mental health care stems from the period of hospitalisation I experienced for Anorexia Nervosa, half of which was spent as a detained patient. I now live with my foster mum and foster brother. My biological brother spends a lot of time round at ours’ as well. I am now in recovery from Anxiety and Depression and have recovered from my eating disorder.