As she walked into the meeting room, immaculately dressed and perfectly briefed, Suzanne Alderson was determined not to allow the strain of the past few months to show.
Three months earlier, Suzanne’s world had fallen apart when her 14-year-old daughter Issy went alone to see their GP to say she was planning to take her own life because she was being bullied at her private school.
The teenager was barely eating or sleeping and the doctor had rung Suzanne to tell her she couldn’t be left on her own at home for a moment, in case she carried out the threat.
But despite the emotional turmoil she was in, Suzanne, 49, who ran a Leamington Spa-based marketing business and lives near Coventry, felt she had to be at work.
FEMAIL investigated the need for ‘teen-ternity leave’ for parents who need time out to look after teens, as the number of teenager off school with anxiety and depression in the UK increases. Pictured: Suzanne Alderson with daughter Issy
‘It was a meeting with the managing director of a multi-million-pound client,’ she says. ‘We had a strong rapport and I wanted to support our team, talk about our wins.’
Over the next hour, Suzanne thought she had managed to put her worries about her daughter out of her mind long enough to present her professional persona.
‘But then, as the meeting wound up, the client said: “Are you OK?” He noticed I wasn’t myself, not in a business capacity, but personally.
‘I was blindsided and had to compose myself as I tried to work out whether, despite my best efforts, my worries had become apparent. I said my child was seriously ill and left it at that. It wasn’t until a year later that I could tell him the full extent.’
At that moment, Suzanne realised she could no longer do two jobs, be a high-flying businesswoman and a carer for a teenager who needed her around the clock.
‘After that, I took eight months off. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine and that I could work at the intensity I had before Issy became suicidal. I sat down with my husband Ross, with whom I ran the company, and he said he’d take over my clients and shield me as much as possible.
‘I had to recognise that what had been important in the boardroom now felt meaningless. The important work was in my home: caring for my daughter and keeping her alive.
‘I could have applied for a carer’s allowance of £67.60 a week and Issy could have claimed Disability Living Allowance to pay for her care needs — but these benefits are hard to secure so it wasn’t worth it.’
Suzanne (pictured) took eight months off from running a Leamington Spa-based marketing business to help her daughter recover
Suzanne was lucky to be able to take a break which helped her daughter, now 20, recover, go to college and take up a place at university.
But as the number of teens off school with anxiety and depression rises, her dilemma is becoming more common — how do you balance earning a living and caring for a mentally-ill child, especially now the pressure is on for employees to return to the workplace?
Post-pandemic, mental health services are buckling under the weight of adolescent referrals. Waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), the NHS service that treats young people with mental health difficulties, have risen by more than a third in some places since the pandemic began.
The number of children admitted to acute wards with eating disorders more than doubled in the three months to June 2021, compared with the same period in 2019. More than ever, an army of parents is needed to support these teens as they wait for professional help. All of which begs the question: as well as maternity leave, do we need ‘teen-ternity leave’ for parents who need time out to look after teens?
To find out, Femail canvassed a Facebook group run by the charity Parenting Mental Health, where parents go to get support when their child struggles, which has 20,000 members. While about a fifth of those who responded said employers were supportive, many more felt they had no choice but to take unpaid sabbaticals, or leave their jobs.
Others spoke of guilt over leaving colleagues in the lurch as they devoted time to teens who couldn’t cope at school, were having panic attacks or threatening suicide. Still more reported their work performance had suffered because they couldn’t concentrate — or that they have been eased out of their jobs for missing shifts or being ‘unreliable’.
Heather Westland, 54, (pictured) from Shropshire, chose not to return to work when her son Ollie had a breakdown in Year 11
All spoke of the feeling of having to choose between being there for their teenager in a crisis and having to earn the money to pay the bills.
This was the conflict faced by Jane Peters*, who took two months ‘teen-ternity’ when she felt it had become untenable to keep up her job as a book-keeper while her daughter Maya*, then 15, struggled at school.
Jane, 52, says: ‘There were days when as soon as I got to work, I’d get a call to tell me Maya wasn’t coping at school and asking me to collect her. Then one day, they rang to say she’d taken an overdose on the train in. They’d called an ambulance but I needed to go to the hospital.
‘At times such as this, she wanted me, not her dad, and I was the only person who could calm her. It was like having a toddler.
‘I felt I had to be open with my work. My employer was amazing — if I had to leave, it was accepted, but I felt guilty as other colleagues had to pick up the pieces.’
When the stress became too much, Jane asked her GP if she could be signed off work. Seeing the toll it was taking on her health, he agreed.
‘For two months, I focused 100 per cent on my daughter, and that was when we got the connection back.
‘At first, Maya wanted to be in her room. But slowly she started coming out, talking more, watching TV with me. I think because I was calmer, she calmed down. When I wasn’t working I felt more in tune with her.
‘She became less resistant to communicating and started missing fewer days of school. Gradually the calls reduced. Now she’s doing well at school and has a part-time job.’
While Jane sought help from CAMHS and Maya was assessed quickly by a nurse, she was then put on a nine-month waiting list for therapy.
Jane’s husband runs his own HR company, and she stresses how lucky she was to be able to afford to take time off, but adds: ‘If parents can, I think taking a work break like this can really help. I think parental stress plays a huge role in all this.’
A teacher for 22 years, Claire Whitehead* also took a break from work when her daughter Amelia* stopped going to school in Year 7, after a breakdown.
Now 16, Amelia has since been diagnosed with autism, anxiety and depression.
Looking back, Heather (pictured) believes that the pressures on Ollie to succeed in his GCSEs worsened his mental health
Claire, 46, who lives near Bristol, says: ‘It was a huge secondary and by April, the size of the school and pressure socially and academically meant she collapsed. She refused to come out of her room and said she was going to kill herself.’
Until that point, Claire had intended to apply for more senior education posts. ‘But all this made it impossible. It impacted my career far more than my husband James’s, who works in engineering — as he is a higher earner, it was obvious for me to cut back.
‘My headteacher has been supportive, but cutting down work to just one day means my salary is a fraction of what it was. Instead, as a family, we get £300 a month disability living allowance for Amelia’s needs.’
Yet Claire regrets she didn’t take more time off earlier, ‘When Amelia first became ill, I cut back my days gradually, but I wish I’d taken a year off at the start, rather than trying to juggle everything. Maybe she wouldn’t have got worse.
‘I think giving families the option of a “teen-ternity” break — like maternity leave where you get 90 per cent of your average weekly pre-tax earnings for the first 6 weeks, and then a minimum of £151.97 or your average weekly earnings for the next 33 weeks — is a good idea.’
She adds: ‘Your GP or a social worker would secure eligibility based on the individual case, and then each teen may be reassessed weeks later to see if further parental leave was needed.
‘While it’s not yet being officially talked about, it could be cheaper for the Government than the millions they spend on mental health services for young people.’
For some mothers, their children’s mental health problems have stopped them returning to the workplace altogether.
Heather Westland, 54, is a divorced mother-of-two from Shropshire who has a postgraduate degree in social policy and housing management. She hoped to return to work when her two children were older.
But in Year 11, her son Ollie had a breakdown. Now 18, he has been diagnosed with ADHD, depression, anxiety and Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, which means he only eats a limited range of bland foods.
Looking back, Heather believes the pressures on Ollie to succeed in his GCSEs worsened his mental health.
‘He started having panic attacks at school. Then one morning, he came downstairs and fell apart. After that, even if he made it into school, he got little support so felt too anxious to go to lessons.’
Belinda Lester, 52, (pictured), from North London, an employment law expert, thinks we need a societal shift so parents can take that time to support their teens if they are struggling
Heather feels she still has to devote much of her time to her son — so hasn’t returned to work.
‘I have to be his reminder to eat and it’s a full-time job to get him the professional support, therapy and medication he needs. ‘As his mother, I’m his safe place; basically anything that impacts on him, impacts on me.
‘Sometimes, I imagine what life would have been like had I said: “Right, that’s it! I’m going back into the workplace.” But the good thing is Ollie is back on track. He’s at college doing a diploma in Sporting Excellence and I don’t think he would have succeeded if I hadn’t had the time to help him.’
Belinda Lester, 52, is an employment law expert who knows what it’s like to be in this position. Her son’s panic attacks reached a crisis point at secondary school.
When he started to refuse to go into his 1,500-pupil comprehensive, he joined the 700,000 youngsters who are listed as persistently absent from school, according to the latest government figures.
She found the problem eased when he was diagnosed with autism and she moved him to a small specialist school.
While Belinda, from North London, could work at home as she was already running her own practice, Lionshead Law, she says many women see their careers suffer.
She adds that parents have the right to take up to 18 weeks’ parental leave over the course of their child’s life up to the age of 18, but it is unpaid and must be taken at a rate of four weeks a year in blocks of one or two weeks.
They can also apply to work flexibly but need to have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks. She adds: ‘The employer needs a good reason to turn down flexible working requests.’
Going forward, Belinda thinks we need a societal shift so parents can take that time to support their teens if they are struggling.
‘One of the biggest problems about all of this is that it’s seen as a woman’s problem. Nothing will significantly change until it becomes a people problem to be shared between both parents.’
Suzanne (pictured) advises parents not to see their child’s difficulties as a judgement on their parenting or their worth as an employee
Even though the provision to take time off for children is there, Belinda believes many parents still don’t take it, fearing it will damage their careers.
‘Under the law, employers can’t treat you less favourably.’
Of course, whether the families, employers or the state bear the burden, the money isn’t limitless.
In a nation where more than one in ten children is estimated to be facing some sort of mental health difficulty, we also have to address the underlying reasons our young people are struggling so much in the first place.
While many factors contribute to mental illness, the fact so many young people crumble when they join secondary school indicates our education system needs to change, says Suzanne Alderson, who set up the Parenting Mental Health charity after what her daughter went through.
‘Education has become depersonalised, focused on attainment, meaning children don’t feel seen or heard as individuals. They are put under extraordinary pressure and when they have a difficulty, whether it’s anxiety or bullying, they are getting lost in the system.
‘I’d like to see caring for a child with a mental health issue to be automatically covered by statutory sick pay. While for many, it won’t take away all the financial pressures, it would give some security in a very uncertain and highly stressful time.’
She adds: ‘The Government also needs to recognise the impact this kind of caring has on the family, employers and wider society, support parents to do the important work of caring with flexibility, and ensure parents aren’t discriminated second-hand for their child’s mental health issues.’
Suzanne also believes it’s essential for parents to look after themselves, too.
‘Once you’ve seen your child try to end their life, it changes your perspective on what is important.
‘When I tried to work when Issy became ill, tasks that used to take me ten minutes took more like ten hours. When I stepped back from work, it gave me the emotional bandwidth to focus on her 100 per cent. Given time in a less stressed environment, Issy made her own way back.’
Whatever a mother’s circumstances, Suzanne, who has since written a book Never Let Go: How To Parent Your Child Through Mental Illness, also believes being transparent with your employer and colleagues is key.
‘Don’t see your child’s difficulties as a judgment on your parenting or your worth as an employee. Acknowledge what’s going on, and don’t be ashamed or gloss over it. After all, if your child had a physical illness, you wouldn’t hide it.’
- If you are a parent with a mentally ill child, you can find support at facebook.com/parentingmentalhealth. Anyone seeking help can call Samaritans free on 116 123 or visit Samaritans.org.
- Tanith Carey is author of What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents.
* These names have been changed.