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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

Medication for young people self-harming

When a young person who self-harms also has a mental health problem, such as depression, they may be prescribed medication. Some of the parents and carers we spoke to talked about how the young people had reacted to this.

Some were pleased with the effects of the tablets they were prescribed. Charles’s son thought his increased dose of antidepressants was helpful. Audrey’s husband became much calmer after taking mood stabilisers and ‘could see everything from a different perspective’. Jane S said that when her daughter was on her medication ‘She’s lively, she’s bubbly, she’s just normal.’
 

Mood stabilisers helped Audrey’s husband cope with his feelings before he started CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy).

Mood stabilisers helped Audrey’s husband cope with his feelings before he started CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy).

Age at interview: 30
Sex: Female
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My husband is now on a mood stabiliser [coughs] to better help him cope with the feelings that he has because he needs to he needs to get CBT therapy and before this CBT therapy they need to get him into a mood where he’s able to deal with everything without going away up here and away down there. He needs to be calm. So he’s started this new mood stabiliser. He’s been on it two weeks now and I mean its chalk and cheese from what he was like before. He, before it was like, he would wake up one morning and he would be, you know, the grumpiest man alive and then other mornings he would wake up and he’d be the happiest man alive, whereas now, he wakes up and he’s neither up nor down. He’s just level, that’s the best way I can describe it. He’s just so level and all our friends and myself, I’m not used to it , you know, because I’ve had almost three years of dealing with, you know, a Jekyll and Hyde. I’ve had drama constant and that’s what I I’ve grown used to and now I’m just dealing with a level, type of thing. 

It’s just it’s very, very strange but it’s good because there’s no arguing, even if I tried to get an argument out of him, he’s just, “I’m not arguing with you”. You know, and he’s so level and he’s chilled, he’s relaxed. He’s in a better frame of mind that he can see everything from a different perspective. He can see both sides to every story you know whereas before it was a case of he could only see, he had tunnel vision. It was one option and one option only. There was never a range of options. There was only the negative. He always looked at the negative side of things. There was never a positive, whereas that’s slowly starting to change now. 

So he’s on this new medication, which is, you know, touch wood, is starting to take an effect on him but we’ll wait and see.
Often it takes time for people to get used to medication and doctors have to try out different doses. Ann’s daughter had some side effects. ‘Once she started on medication things actually got a lot worse,’ Ann told us. ‘I think her medication had a lot to do with her behaviours at that particular episode and she was put in the psychiatric intensive care unit’. Jo noticed that her daughter’s behaviour was becoming more ‘erratic’ after her GP reduced the dose. She didn’t know if the reduction was because the GP thought it appropriate or whether her daughter was ‘pushing to get it reduced’. Gwendoline’s daughter was put on some medication which affected her badly: ‘She was going stir crazy… and she just felt like she was going to explode’.
 

Erica’s daughter had problems with different medications but is now taking one which suits her.

Erica’s daughter had problems with different medications but is now taking one which suits her.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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So is she on medication at the moment?

She’s on medication. She was, when she was in hospital, she was on antidepressants.

They tried antipsychotic but they didn’t they didn’t agree with her at all. She’s now, she then went off antidepressants, then she was back on antidepressants, then went off antidepressants and her mood was very, very unstable so they put her on antipsychotic, not because she’s psychotic, but because as a mood stabiliser and this time they agreed with her. She’s now still on antipsychotic but we’re, she’s been decreased them. She’s coming off them so she’s coming off them very, very slowly but she’ll probably be off them by February, which is two or three months’ time. So at the moment, it’s looking good.
 

Annette’s son reacted badly to the medicine he was given. She thought doctors should have got to know him better before they prescribed the tablets.

Annette’s son reacted badly to the medicine he was given. She thought doctors should have got to know him better before they prescribed the tablets.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And then, let me think, after that, what happened is we did have some people come to the house and they did give him some support. They asked him a lot of questions. They advised him on taking medicine. Now my son has never really taken medicine before and, while the suggestion was very good, I don’t think the medicine was well prescribed to him. He had given this medicine in the hope it would actually, alleviate I suppose some of or give him some sense of relief to all the things that were going on in his head. But in real truth, the medicine was too strong and it wasn’t the right one.

And I know you can never tell which is the right one but for him, it actually caused him to be very ill physically. I do remember him crouching down in a very small way talking in a very slurred voice saying, “Mum, help me. Help me because I can’t cope with this. I can’t cope with this.” And I said, “Oh son son, listen. We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this. No matter what, we’ll get through this. I’m here. I’m here for you.” And I do remember thinking, even though he’s got that stress, you know, to give him these tablets was very distressing also.

But not so much more for myself but more for him really because he was already suffering in pain and the dosage was just too excessive and that’s no criticism on anyone’s part. It’s just that maybe with a bit more hindsight about who he was, the kind of illness he was suffering, because there’s different types of self-harming.

And there’s different types, there’s idolation of suicide and I think, getting to know that person and more about them, I think would have perhaps given them a better idea and him, of what was properly prescribed really, to be quite honest. So, yeah, that was pretty stressful. 
 

Jo-Ann’s daughter has epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder so it was difficult to get her medication right.

Jo-Ann’s daughter has epilepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder so it was difficult to get her medication right.

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Is she on regular medication?

She’s also on propranolol, which is a beta-blocker, which is for anxiety as well. She’s on drugs because she’s got epilepsy as well so she’s on drugs for those are for, you know, for anti-epilepsy drugs. They’ve also put her on fluoxetine and citalopram, not together but they’ve had to take her off both because that affects her epilepsy and, but they put her on those for, not for depression, but for the intrusive thoughts. She’s got OCD as well and so they thought they would, that would help with the intrusive thoughts but, unfortunately, they’ve had to take her off. 

They’ve also talked about anti-psychotic drugs but they affect her epilepsy as well so they don’t want to do that. I don’t really, you know, [sighs] she never wanted to go on any drugs and now she can’t function without taking her anti-anxiety meds. If she forgets them, the effects are immediate. You know, by, by lunchtime, she’s restless, she’s climbing the walls, she doesn’t, she can’t, sometimes she can’t even go in the kitchen because there might be crumbs in there. And I’ll say to her, “Did you take your tablets this morning?” And, you know, it’s pretty obvious she hasn’t and but now she’s upset now because she can’t function. The anxiety is as much as it was when she wasn’t on them but she’s now got side-effects of the, of the anti-anxiety tablets to contend with on top of the anxiety itself. That’s just so upsetting. She can’t come off them now because she’s just too anxious.
Sometimes the young person decided not to take their medication. Sandra’s daughter tried medication to help her moods for nine months, but decided it wasn’t helping and ‘weaned herself off’. Joanne’s daughter refused to take antidepressants but did take antipsychotic drugs. ‘The meds she really needs, she refuses to take’, said Joanne. ‘Don’t know if that’s another form of self-harm or whether she just physically can’t allow herself to get better. I don’t know. Nightmare.’ Jane S’s daughter told her mother something similar: ‘I’m not sure whether sometimes I purposely don’t order my medication because it’s another form of self-harming.’
 

Sandra’s daughter didn’t want her system ‘to be a medicine trolley’. Now she only takes sleeping pills occasionally and is coping well.

Sandra’s daughter didn’t want her system ‘to be a medicine trolley’. Now she only takes sleeping pills occasionally and is coping well.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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And if anything, I would say she’s at her best and she’s at her most stable and she’s had to take some control in getting to that place because one time, when she was, a really bad day, the consultants put her on some medication, can’t remember what the name was, but anyway, she was on some medication to help her moods and that but then she said the medication wasn’t helping so she tried it for about nine months and then she felt that it was giving her more psychotic thoughts, you know, to self-harm and eventually, she weaned herself off it. 

And she literally said to her consultant that she’s not taking them because she doesn’t think its helping. She she’d rather help herself naturally, you know, and even if she’s having the thoughts she’s going to fight them and, you know, she’ll use her rubber band. So if she’s having a thought, she’ll just keep flicking it or she’ll try and think about something positive, you know, and that and that that’s what she’s been doing. So she’s been applying some of the principles that she’s been taught through therapy and that seems to be working for her. And so the only medication she’s on is the one that helps her to sleep, which is melatonin, and she’ll only have it when she’s really, really struggling. 

She said to me, “Mum, I don’t want my system to be a medicine trolley so I’m not going to take medicines, like a popping, like popping pills. I’ll only have them when I really need them.” And again for her, that’s self-discipline, you know, so she’ll only say to me, “Mum, can I have some sleeping pills just to help me through the night?” And other nights she’ll go for a whole week and she won’t have them so she’s really disciplined and she’s coping really well. 
 

Medication helped reduce stress for Jane S’s daughter but when she felt ‘normal’ she sometimes didn’t take it. She had problems getting prescriptions.

Medication helped reduce stress for Jane S’s daughter but when she felt ‘normal’ she sometimes didn’t take it. She had problems getting prescriptions.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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And she continues on that anti-anxiety and anti-depressant…

Yes.

… medication?

Yes, she does, yeah, yeah. I think she needs to, you know, I think she needs it actually. Sometimes, it’s very interesting, she’s a very intelligent person so I wonder why it is that she runs out or forgets to order and she said something very interesting, first of all she said, “Well, mum, it’s because I feel well when I’m on them, I feel normal, therefore, I don’t think I need them.” 

And when she when she stops taking them, the, after a couple of days, she’s so noticeably changed, she can’t even remember who she is or how to write her name. I’ve actually stood with her in the surgery, when she’s an adult after all and my surgery is very good and I’ve actually, had to coax her into knowing how to write her name because she just completely goes to pieces. If you met her when she’s on her medication, she’s lively, she’s bubbly, she’s just normal but a very interesting thing she said was that, she said, “I’m not sure whether sometimes I purposely don’t order my medication because it’s another form of self-harming.” 

So she hasn’t stopped then?

Well, yes, she has stopped and on the whole, she does order her pills [laughs] but there are times when, you know, her emotional health isn’t so good and she wobbles. But I think the fact that she’s identified that is a, is a very positive thing.

So that’s all been very interesting and what’s happened is that the medication has put her on an even keel so it stops those, you know, that that stress. And I notice, I know now when she’s forgotten her pills either forgotten to take them or she hasn’t, you know, had a repeat prescription, which I think by the way, is extremely hard, a hard process nowadays. But I notice it because she becomes much more introspective and I can, I recognise the signs in her and I ask her. And, you know, because she’s nearly twenty three, she’s not a kid and I have to be respectful but I have to respectfully also kind of look out for her. 

But the whole process of getting medication is just so hard and, you know, you a) you can’t just ring up and ask for a prescription, a repeat prescription in our surgery anyway. You have to have a review constantly and they’re always looking to cut down her dosage and sort of wean her off, when actually I don’t think and she doesn’t think that that’s a good idea. Some doctors can be very hard on her for taking them and, in fact, one pharmacist, when she was at uni, called her name and handed over her prescription and then wouldn’t let go of the package and looked at her and tutted and said, “You shouldn’t be on these.” Which she found really upsetting to be told off and she vowed never to go back to that pharmacy to get her pills again. And I thought that was unnecessary, actually. 
Jane S (see clip above) and Ann talked about difficulties in getting prescriptions. Ann told us that when her daughter was an outpatient, ‘There seems to be a communications gap between the hospital and the GP as regards medication, but that message never gets across when there’s been a change in the medication.’ Ann had to ring the GP’s secretary to ask for the new prescription. 

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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