Mental health problems among young women are out of control. That’s no secret. Barely a day goes by without a new headline describing the latest depressing stat. "One In Four Young Women In The UK Have Mental Health Problems" it may read, or "'Selfie Culture' To Blame For Huge Rise In Suicide Among Young Women". Teenage girls are suffering from anxiety, from depression, from personality disorders, from eating disorders. They're crumbling under pressures that people older than them can't hope to understand, and they're struggling to find the help they need.
Which is why Girls On The Edge is an important watch. This new observational documentary airing on BBC Two follows three teenage girls who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. All victims of self-harm, the film shows the reality of their journeys from breakdown to recovery. If you can ever fully recover from mental health problems, that is.
It is set in FitzRoy House, a 110-bed capacity facility in Northampton devoted specially to teenagers with mental health problems. We meet Jade, a 17-turning-18-year-old who has a schizotypal personality disorder; Jess, 17, who is struggling with mixed disorder of conduct and emotions; and Erin, 16, who is slowly making her way back to teenage life after a destructive experience with anxiety and depression. All three girls have self-harmed and attempted suicide; all three were considered a danger to themselves. Jess’ parents remember their daughter trying to take her own life by overdosing on pills, drinking bleach, trying to throw herself under a car, and more.
For Erin, everything came to a head one night after a year spent trying to suppress the pain she was feeling. "I had started self-harming," she explains. "I think at this point it was depression I was struggling with, and all I did was try and hide it. By hiding it I was quite the class clown; this was me finding a different me, to hide how I was feeling."
She was at a party one night when she suffered a breakdown in front of all her friends. "It was the most horrible thing because my friends saw how I’d been struggling in the past year by myself." Her sister recalls Erin talking about "a girl with black hair who followed her and tried to make her self-harm". Erin herself doesn't remember much of what her sister says but finds it "scary" that she got into that position.
At FitzRoy, the girls are observed for 24 hours a day, they live in locked wards, there is no social media, access to mirrors and glass is limited. Listening to the girls speak about their experiences is hard; they've been through far too much for their young lives. Both Jess and Erin were bullied, something which all the parents agree has become far more malicious thanks to social media. Jess' dad recalls her listening to the Sugababes' song "Ugly" on repeat, alone in her bedroom, when she was just 9 years old. Life inside the ward is heartbreaking, too; on Jade's 18th birthday, we find her eating cake in a quiet common room while her twin sister is at home, giggling and watching Snapchat videos of herself from the Malibu and lemonade-fuelled night before.
Girls On The Edge presents FitzRoy House as a positive place; the staff are caring and knowledgeable, familiar enough with their patients to sometimes pre-emptively deal with incidents, effectively managing the fallout when they don't. The hospital puts on a prom for teenagers missing vital parts of their life outside, and holds an Annual Educational Achievement Day, where certificates are given out to patients who have excelled in certain areas.
FitzRoy House, though, is new. It is set to be followed by openings of spaces in Hull, West Yorkshire, Cornwall and Nottingham, in line with NHS England's promise to create 150 new child and mental health services beds by the end of 2019. However, until enough beds are created, oversubscription is a problem. In the past two years, the number of patients being treated outside their local area has gone up 40%. For families, this can mean a huge upheaval. Take Jess, for instance. She reckons she's been an inpatient in eight or nine different units across the country. Unsurprisingly, her concerned parents visit every weekend. Her mum describes how their son's GCSE revision was done in the back of their car as the family made their weekly 300-mile round trip to FitzRoy.
Last year, the case of X, a suicidal teenage girl, shocked the nation after it was revealed that she was to be sent home from a secure mental health unit because a bed could not be found for her. Sir James Munby, the UK’s most senior family judge, said he felt “ashamed and embarrassed” and stated that Britain would “have blood on its hands” if anything were to happen to X. At the time, there was a six-month wait for the type of bed that she needed. In the end she was found a bed but experts warned this was far from a one-off case.
This problem is touched upon in the documentary, although it is not the main focus. In the end, it is adult mental health services that get most scrutiny, when 18-year-old Jade is forced to wait two days to transfer from child services to adult services while they struggle to find her a bed.
For Erin, though, the most important reason for her taking part in the documentary was to try and normalise the conversation about mental health. "I wanted to share my story so other people that are going through something similar can see there is some hope," she says. "I want people to get the message that three ordinary girls have just been through something that was totally horrific for them and that could happen to anyone."
If she can just get people to share their feelings when things start going wrong, she will be happy. "People should be open and understand it’s not just them, there’s a lot of people that are struggling too. For me, the important thing is, talking about it kept me alive. So I want to encourage people to speak earlier on, before they get to that crisis point like I did."
Girls On The Edge is on BBC Two on Thursday 22nd February at 9pm, and on iPlayer.