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​Q&A with Suzanne Alderson, Author of Never Let Go

Posted by Lucy H on 4th Dec 2020

​Q&A with Suzanne Alderson, Author of Never Let Go

Never let go

Your book will resonate with a huge number of people. What was the inspiration for you to start writing it?

If I have a problem or want to change or learn something, I always rely on a book; you can see the shape of the challenges of my life by my bookshelves. But when my daughter became depressed and suicidal at 14, I couldn’t find the book I needed to read.

Yes, there were clinical texts on what depression in young people might look like, but there was nothing that was from a perspective of a parent who had lived it or that took into account that standard parenting approaches tend not to work when your child has mental health issues.

I needed a companion to help me through this, and I decided early on in Issy’s illness that if we made it through in one piece, I’d write it. And I’ve wanted to write a book since I was about 8 years old! 

It took 40 years and isn’t a murder mystery, but I think it’s exactly the book I was meant to write first.

You’ve been totally open about the mental health crisis your daughter faced, and how she dealt with it. What do you think has changed in the time since she was diagnosed? Has there been a change in the availability of support and resources?

Well, we’re obviously in the midst of a global pandemic and that is impacting on everyone’s emotional equilibrium, whether they’d see themselves as having a mental health issue or not. We’re not set up to deal with the wave of mental health issues we have already and with my charity, we are looking at how we can support parents to support their children in different ways before they get to a crisis point.

From what I see, the services are even more in demand than they were when Issy became ill 5 years ago, and they were oversubscribed then. Every day, I hear from parents who are told their child who is depressed doesn’t meet criteria because they don’t have a plan to end their lives. Completely unacceptable and outrageous, but more common than you’d expect.

How is it acceptable to tell a young person that their experience of declining mental health - which is probably limiting their ability to achieve, have meaningful relationships and see a future - isn’t ‘bad enough’ to warrant professional intervention? How can we take that hope and sense of worthiness away from them?

And aside from those young people who are enduring extreme mental health issues and may or may not meet criteria, those who may be experiencing the early symptoms of anxiety or depression are highly unlikely to be assessed as meeting criteria. If they manage to, because they have a strong referral, a persistent parent or school or a combination, they are put on waiting lists for therapy - over 12 months isn’t unusual. 

Then if a child can’t engage, because they can’t build enough trust with the mental health professional in the 6 sessions they’re offered, they’re discharged.

It falls to parents, school support and private healthcare if parents can afford it to fill in the gaps.

I think there’s a lot more talk about mental health, which is great, but I don’t think we want to confront the real issues of poor mental health. We don’t want to talk about mental illness, because it’s not all shiny and simple. It challenges all we think we know about ourselves and our society and to speak its name takes courage.

Dealing with mental illness isn’t about a hashtag or a wristband, although they can certainly raise awareness. Instead, we need action - a collective change in our understanding of our minds, our society and how it impacts on us, our expectations, and of our parenting and a commitment to parity in funding for mental and physical health.

I appreciate people don’t want to talk about self harm or suicide - it’s difficult and distressing - but we have to if we’re going to change anything for young people and generations to come. We have to tell the true stories of what it is like to be depressed because you’ve been bullied, or so anxious you can’t leave the house, or so traumatised you have flashbacks and live in constant fear.

It’s easy as a society to say we care about mental health but many of the families I see suffer in silence, believing they and their children aren’t worthy of support and that no one really cares. And that makes me very sad, and even more compelled to help.

I’m getting off my soapbox now!

Was it very difficult to get the book started and to revisit the most difficult days you’d been through?

I had kept notes throughout Issy’s illness because I wanted to document what worked and what didn’t, so starting was relatively straightforward.

The hardest part of writing the book was actually remembering some of the difficult but unmemorable days - the ones where nothing really bad had happened but I carried a sense of overwhelm, dread or fear. Trying to put that quiet desperation into words did bring up a lot of emotion. But it was the editing process where most of the emotion came out.

As I reread the manuscript, I spent one day just sobbing. I couldn’t explain why, it was as if every unresolved emotion and judgement about the experience came out. A very cathartic moment!

How much additional engagement have you had via the charity you founded (Parenting Mental Health) – have you seen an increase this year as a result of the Covid situation?

We are a new charity - we only received our charity status 3 weeks before lockdown - so we don’t have historic data to compare with, but our support community has been running since 2016 and we have seen a sharp increase in the demand for support. And it’s changing shape too. Parents are looking for legal support, financial help (both monetarily and advice) as well as help with the emotional impacts of COVID on them and their wider families.

We’ve run ‘Lockdown Letters’ where members would write letters to isolated family members - for example, my 95 year old Grandmother got a pile of cards from Parenting Mental Health parents - we have raised funds to donate to families for food and other necessities, and we’ve launched Listening Circles with trained counsellors to help parents access some confidential emotional support for free.

The Covid situation has affected us all in different ways. How have you been managing in lockdown?

Well, I didn’t really see any of the lovely weather of the first lockdown because I spent pretty much all my time at my laptop - either online supporting parents or finishing the book edits. I did a lot of training online on a range of topics related to COVID including how to manage your own anxiety about lockdown, how to support your child, on self care, remaining connected, and how to manage uncertainty. I also ran a daily Zoom to connect isolated parents around the world.

Aside from that, the weather definitely helped my mood and being outside did too. And of course, the prerequisite Zoom quizzes with family and friends became a highlight of my week!

There have been days when I’ve just wanted to curl up on the sofa and watch Netflix, and I’ve allowed myself to do that, but I’ve also been really lucky to be so busy with the charity and the book which have given me reason to focus on the future. And I think that sense of a lost or uncertain future is something that has been so hard for many.

The importance of networks to support young people with mental health issues is huge. What do you recommend to parents and families who have had to curtail their interactions with schools, wider families, neighbours and friends as a result of the pandemic?

Don’t give up. Services are now coming back online with lots of counsellors working via Zoom, as well as some limited in-person appointments ( pre the November lockdown) so there is support out there, but it can be really hard to build the kind of rapport that is needed for a young person to open up when you’re relying on technology to translate the kinds of non-verbal communication that helps with trust and conveys empathy.

Be patient. I see parents who think that getting an appointment is the end of a fight, but it’s the start of another journey. Creating the right environment for recovery and finding the right resources is not a quick process, and what works today might not work next week.

Recognise the impact of COVID on your child’s mental health and how it is affecting you. There is a collective anxiety as well as heightened emotions all around and I’d check to see if you’re taking this on board. Manage your media consumption, make your home your haven and ensure you take great care of yourself. Stay connected to people who make you smile and who understand the challenges you face.

While I’d absolutely advocate maintaining the urgency to get support, I’d slow down on expectation and take one day at a time. Be led by your child. If routines are different or things don’t happen in the way they normally do, assess their impact and see if you need to change your perception of what is acceptable for now. It won’t be forever.

This is an extraordinary time, it calls for extraordinary measures of compassion and understanding.

The book has plenty of practical advice about nutrition, sleep and physical well-being as well as providing links to resources for mental health support. What advice would you give to anyone dealing with a mental health crisis as a first step?

Get into the system

Despite the underfunding, the NHS is amazing and can offer great support. So get to your GP, and if your child or relative can’t or won’t go, make yourself an appointment and share your concerns. I wrote a letter to my GP to ensure I could include everything I wanted to in the appointment.

Consider what support might be needed - therapy, medication, etc - and if necessary, head to A&E if you can’t keep yourself or the other person safe. Dig your heels in if you’re sent home, and don’t take no for an answer.

Be prepared to fight.

Services are underfunded and over-subscribed. Unless you have an amazing doctor who will fight your corner, it is likely that you will need to stamp your feet and make a nuisance of yourself to get the support needed. And I hate to say this because there are some amazing mental health professionals out there, but sometimes you can’t access what you need because the clinical pathway is just that - a clinical pathway, it’s not personalised and it might not work for your child or relative. Trust your gut. If you don’t think something is working, make notes, keep a diary and challenge politely and firmly, knowing that it’s absolutely ok to do so.

Get your own support network.

If you’re caring for someone with a mental health crisis, please, please, please get support for yourself. Just because you can’t see this illness and your child or family member looks the same, they are not and they will say and do things that may hurt you and them.

You don’t have to pretend this is ‘normal’ and isn’t affecting you. Having support from someone who has been there is really powerful, nurturing and connective.

Seek out support groups like Parenting Mental Health. Don’t be ashamed to ask for support. You’re not alone.

Get a plan.

There are pillars of wellbeing that can help reduce some of the impact of mental illness, which I cover in the book. Look at the stressors and try and remove them. Look at the elements that undermine wellbeing and address them, whether that’s sleep, food, pressure, or something very personal. And know that the sooner you acknowledge this is really going on, the sooner you can limit the impact of a crisis.

Again, be patient.

Mental illness is brutal, but it can be beautiful in places too. Some of my most difficult memories as well as my most cherished are from when Issy was ill. The visceral pain of her wanting to end her life is juxtaposed with us laughing at silly videos sitting in a McDonald’s car park in the small hours.

I know the temptation is to wish this time away, but try not to. Give it - and the person and yourself - time. There are no quick fixes, but if you are patient, you may find that instead of being broken by this, you are enriched with golden threads of insight and connection that bring a different meaning to your life.

You use the expression “You can’t pour from an empty cup” when talking about self-care. How do you unwind and refill that cup?

Self care is seen as an indulgence, as if we somehow believe our family and child is less of a priority. But looking after ourselves and caring for others are not mutually exclusive. We need to do one so we can do the other. I think self care is so personal. It’s about finding the things that make you feel good. And that might be running or it might be balancing your bank statement or realigning your to do list with your energy reserves.

Self care for me starts with time alone. I’m an only child so have always been happy with my own company and need time and space on my own. An empty house is my dream! I love to read and to write, and I try to get out and walk every day which helps me think.

Time away from screens is important for me, not specifically because they’re screens, but they are my main interface with the families we work with. Taking myself away for periods of time is essential for me to work at my best and think strategically.

Saying that, I love gaming on my phone and I’ve started having video chats - I call them WhatsApp Walks - with people because in lockdown, I’ve really missed those human connections.

If all else fails, driving and singing and getting a drive-through hot chocolate never fails to recharge me. Wailing away, pretending I can actually sing does something really wonderful to my sense of wellbeing.

Do you have time for any other creative outlets as well as your writing? If not, what would you like to try?

During the first lockdown, Issy and I decided to paint each week. She is very visually creative so hers were beautiful, mine less so. I don’t think my inner artist recovered from one of my paintings being ridiculed in front of the class when I was 12! But I really enjoyed it as an immersive experience because I had to really look beyond what I thought I could see to translate it into the painted form.

When Issy was ill, I used to go to a pottery studio and mess around with clay. It was more about escaping my head for a few hours. I’d love to learn how to crochet and knit but I’m not holding out much hope. My last attempt at knitting a scarf has to be unpicked and re-knitted by a friend!

I love to cook when I have a day to potter around the kitchen. I’m also planning on finishing a screenplay for a drama series early next year. I have a hunch that fiction may be a good way to encourage behavioural change by stealth so that’s my 2021 creative pursuit sorted.

What would your perfect day look like?

Waking to a bright, crisp, cold December day in a bed with clean sheets in a clean house near the coast. Spending time with people I love - Issy and my family, friends - including those I’ve made through this experience - and the Parenting Mental Health community.

Helping the community in some way, whether it’s a doing a live Q&A or some 1-1 mentoring, always brings me joy as does a spot of reading, writing and daydreaming in front of a log fire. I’d go for a walk or horse ride along the beach before coming back to dress up in my glad rags, go for dinner cooked by Marcus Waring and then head off for a night of dancing.

And as I sit with a large glass of wine at the end of my perfect day, getting the call to say that adolescent mental health budgets have been increased so the criteria has broadened and Parenting Mental Health has received a large grant to help more families would top it off nicely. You know, simple things! ;)

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

I expect my typical reader is a parent like me, wondering how to get through what is likely to be the most challenging experience they’ve faced with their child, desperate to make things right, wanting to know what not to do as much as what to do and wanting to feel connected at a time when they feel isolated and scared.

But I’ve heard that reading about the way I ‘partnered, not parented’ Issy through her illness has been helpful in reframing all kinds of relationships, not just parent and child. One woman said she’d applied the principles to her relationship with her husband to great effect, and someone else said it had helped them reframe and process their emotions towards their mother who is very ill and reconnect.

I would also hope that anyone involved with a young person with poor mental health would read it - from grandparents to teachers to counsellors. While it is a read about mental illness, many of the themes and challenges are human: how to deal with loss, adversity and uncertainty; how to be compassionate to yourself and others; and how to build strong, positive relationships.

I’d love the DJ Chris Evans to read my book. I used to listen to him every morning and I always enjoyed his critiques of books as he interviewed authors. It would be personally satisfying but I think it would really help us get this book into the hands of people who need it.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading several books - I often have 2 or 3 non fiction books on the go ( in book and audiobook form) plus a fiction book or sometimes two. I like to fall straight into them when I have time to read so with a few books on the go, I’ve got a choice depending on my mood or levels of concentration.

I’m also not afraid to stop reading if I’m not hooked - an author’s worst nightmare as a reader. I’ve just finished Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Moonflower Murders' and ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier as I was inspired to reread it after watching the Netflix film. My next fiction read is ‘The Thursday Murder Club’.

We run a book club in the Parenting Mental Health Facebook community and I usually read that book alongside one of my own choice, but this month it’s ‘Never Let Go' ( not selected by me, I might add!)

My current non fiction reads are ‘In the realm of Hungry Ghosts’ by Gabor Mate and Brene Brown’s ‘Braving the Wilderness’.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Only one? I escaped into books as a child so I read anything I could get my hands on. I read a lot of Enid Blyton’s adventure books until I discovered Agatha Christie when I was about 10. I read all of her books in quick succession and tried to unpick the plots. They’re still ‘comfort reading’.

In my teens, I read an eclectic mix - George Orwell, Wilkie Collins and Lynne Reid Banks as well as dipping into Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn.

But if I had to pick one book, it would have to be ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee. A multi-faceted story so simply and beautifully told.

Do you have any books you would recommend (other than your own!)

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk is a fascinating book and helpful to understand that mental health and trauma isn’t all in the head.

Paul Broks’ ‘Into the Silent Land’ is such a beautiful and resonant read about the power of the mind and 'The Inflamed Mind' by Edward Bullmore is also very interesting.

I enjoy social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s books on Moral Foundation theory and anti-helicopter parenting.

The Big Leap by Gaye Hendricks is good if you’re looking to challenge your beliefs about your capabilities and Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance has been a friend in book form to me for nearly 30 years - a gentle reminder to connect with yourself on your terms.

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.

Order your copy HERE