‘We’ve been to hell and back’
... and we don’t want other families to go through it. More must be done to help children with mental health issues, parents say
Anne Walker will never forget the day her eight-year-old son was physically restrained and strapped to a hospital bed for three hours.
Or the day Ethan, now 10, turned to her and said: “I want to die.”
The British expat is one of two mothers who have shared their stories with 7DAYS in the hope of highlighting what they feel is a lack of support for children with mental health issues in the UAE.
Anne and her husband Scott spent hundreds of thousands of dirhams seeking the right diagnosis and treatment for their son. It took three years to get clarity about his condition.
Now, after finally being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, Ethan has had successful treatment at the Bethlem Royal Hospital and Maudsley Clinic in London, and is back on the right track with his family in Abu Dhabi. But, the journey has been traumatic.
Anne believes much of that trauma could have been avoided if there had been professionals and facilities better equipped to diagnose and treat Ethan in the UAE.
She told 7DAYS: “When Ethan was six he started showing signs of depression and stopped going to school, after which he started seeing many different doctors. None of them had any answers for us.
“We took him to one hospital and medics there had little idea how to handle him. He was so distressed, they decided to restrain him - the old-fashioned way.
“They strapped him to a bed with belts and gave him medicine to calm him down.”
That heartbreaking incident was just one of many that the family endured and now they attend and help out with a support group for families in the UAE struggling with mental health issues.
Founder Lisa Barfoot-Smith set up the group after her 15-year-old son, Louis, took his own life.
CASE STUDY: ETHAN WALKER
Doctors prescribed Ethan Walker anti-depressants without ever seeing him, handing them over to his parents after a brief meeting. Others charged Dhs1,600 per hour but appeared to have little insight into his condition - a severe anxiety disorder that was only diagnosed years later. He was also eventually diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
That diagnosis was made by medics in London, after a frustrating time for the Walker family in the UAE as they tried to figure out just what was wrong with Ethan.
Ethan’s mum Anne decided to tell their story because they feel there is inadequate support for such families in the UAE.
She and her husband attend and help out with the Louis Smith Foundation, a parent support group set up by fellow expat Lisa Barfoot-Smith.
Anne decided to seek help overseas after a visit to one hospital in the UAE resulted in her son, then eight, being restrained to a bed for three hours. She said he had become highly distressed, battling with anxiety, but it seemed medics had little idea how to handle him.
“When we reached the hospital, he was so distressed, they decided to restrain him - the oldfashioned way,” she said. “They strapped him to a bed with belts and gave him medicine to calm him down.”
Anne added: “We stayed the night in another hospital but they said there wasn’t a suitable doctor to treat Ethan there either, and he was discharged the next day. When Ethan woke up, he could not understand what was happening.”
For Anne and husband Scott it marked what they see as the culmination of failures by mental health professionals, including the Dhs1,600 sessions and prescribed anti-depressants at Dhs800 per bottle.
Anne said Ethan, now 10, became withdrawn at the age of six.
“He would not leave the house and had no interest in things that would normally excite him,” she said.
After the summer break of 2012, Ethan didn’t want to return to school in Dubai.
She said: “He would usually be excited about school, but two weeks after summer break, he didn’t want to go and we could not work out why.” She continued: “When someone that young can’t express themselves, it comes out in resistance and aggression. “Ethan would be hitting and kicking, it was terrifying because he was a great kid.” A year later, Ethan stopped going to school and started looking unwell. “He was over eating, never slept and was completely isolated,” said Anne. “The day before his eighth birthday, Ethan said ‘I want to die’.” The trip to the government hospital came after that. By the end of 2015, Ethan’s condition had worsened and he was visited at home by a doctor from the Maudsley Clinic in Abu Dhabi, a branch of the UK hospital. The doctor suggested admitting him to the in-patient facility for observation. “They advised us to take him to the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London,” said Anne. “He started in February, it has all the right facilities. “My husband and I would take turns to fly there every weekend to be with Ethan.” The doctors concluded Ethan was suffering from an anxiety disorder and diagnosed him of being on the autism spectrum. “I asked many health professionals in the UAE if my child could have autism, all of them said no,” Anne added. Ethan was discharged from Bethlem Royal on May 4, with great reviews. Anne said: “One of them congratulated me, saying Ethan was so polite. “Someone telling me I have done a good job - compared to people here suggesting I review my parenting skills - was amazing.” When approached by 7DAYS, Health Authority Abu Dhabi (HAAD) declined to comment on the subject of children with mental health issues. Dubai Health Authority (DHA) said it is a case for the Community Development Authority Dubai, which did not respond to an attempt to contact them by email.
ON TRACK: After four years and numerous doctors, Ethan is finally on the road to recovery
MORE SUPPORT: Children with mental health issues need special support and doctors and parents need to know how to spot the signs