Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Sometimes we foster carers find ourselves wondering about the mental health of people we come into contact with.

I've become more aware of mental health problems since I started fostering, that's not to say I know what to do when the problem's in front of me.

It's a situation where you're very grateful for your Blue Sky support.

If someone's physically ill they go to the doctor, everyone knows that, and how to describe their problem. Mental health has a lot of catching up to do.

They've made a start. Not long ago people were simply "mad" or other unkind terms I won't repeat. Back then if you were a mental health professional, you might use the scientific term "lunacy", which wasn't really very scientific because it was based on the idea that mental health was connected to the moon.

If you're a modern mental health professional reading this please forgive my ignorant use of words that you might want to challenge; I may say "illness" where you have decided on "issues", or "suffering" where you've come up with "dealing with". I know words are important in psychology, but I'm not up to speed.

Nowadays unusual behaviour can be diagnosed as neurotic, schizophrenic, psychopathic, sociopathic. You can have a Narcissism complex, an Oedipus complex, an Electra complex. The dictionary of mental health is growing like the box set of your favourite show; hard to keep up.

"A" Is for: Aspergers, Alzhiemers, Autism, Anorexia, Agoraphobia, Alcoholism...

Psychologists have tangy names for mental health problems, crisp handles. 'Oppositional Defiance Disorder' is a case in point, it sometimes seems made-up specially for many children in care. It annoys me it spells 'ODD', I'd have credited psychology with a better sense of fun. Mind, I think it's maybe a teensie admission to each other that they can't take their diagnosis much further than that the person's behaviour is...well...odd.

Psychologists, if they were honest, would have to admit they can confidently tell you the name of what's wrong. But they only have a running shot at the cause and cure.

It's like you go downstairs one morning and there's a giant octopus in your kitchen. Experts come round. They spend an hour once a week in there with the octopus. Then they come out with reassuring smiles and notebooks and say; "Good news, we have established what it is. It's probably not an octopus. We think it's most likely a particular type of squid, called Architauthis hartingii, also known as Larsson's Squid". 

You stand there waiting for them to tell you how it turned up in your kitchen and more to the point how to get rid of it. But they are packing up, because they've done the only bit they can definitely do, which is tell you the name for it, either a Greek/Latin word, or in honour of the expert. "The client has Archiauthis/Larsson's Syndrome". 

Most physical illnesses have a singe cause. If you catch a cold from a stranger on the bus you both have exactly the same virus. It may affect you slightly differently, but it's the same germ. Yet you can get two brothers from the same chaotic family, both brought up the same who have wildly differing mental health problems. Or maybe one is fine and the other in pain. Or maybe both are fine.

Just because you have the same parents and live in the same house doesn't mean your experience has been the same, or that the chemical make-up of your brain is the same. I suppose every mentally ill person in the world has an utterly unique mental illness, all of their own.

Psychologists can suggest a 'treatment', which is not the same as a cure. It usually means that they can try to manage the illness, hold the condition in check, maybe provide a bit of relief. But it will still be in there, in the person's system. They might suggest a couple of ideas about technique, but in the case of fostering you find that nothing beats the patience and kindness you've been using all along. They might prescribe some pills, which often seem to have a short-term benefit, but things often go back to before, as if the mental condition says to itself "Ah, I'm up against one of yer common old diazepam's here, I know how to beat that little squirt"

The other thing about mental health is this. If you have a physical health problem you know about it, and you know the best thing is to go get help. With mental health issues nine times out of ten people don't know they've got a problem or deny they've got a problem, and refuse to see a professional about it. Not only do they refuse professional help, the system of providing them with help is skewed so that it's easy for them to avoid help. Basically they don't have to get help if they don't want it, which would be fine if they are the only person who is affected by their condition. But they're not. Often they are making other people unhappy, or even ill.

I feel sorry for psychologists, they're the bailiffs of the medical world; nobody wants to see them.

They've got an almost impossible job and they do it with great hearts and minds, but that's that's all it is: a job. They clock in, see clients, have lunch with colleagues, see a couple more clients, pack up and go home at 5.30pm. Relax and watch Star Trek with a glass of red.

People who foster sometimes find that they are living the working life of the psychologist full on in their own home all day every day, every evening, every night.

Someone once said "It's easier to build strong children than repair broken men." He said it 100 years ago, before we foster carers had to start trying to repair broken children.


  1. The other problem is that when people do want to get help, it's often not available or not easy to get.

  2. You're right there. Then there's that Catch 22 where if you think you have a mental health problem you probably haven't, whereas if you think you haven't you more likely have.