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Think of the children before you shout out; Debbie Johnson looks at a new campaign highlighting the effects of mental illness.

IF you live in Liverpool, Sefton or Kirkby, you have a one in four chance of a postcard landing on your doormat in the next few days asking you to show tolerance and understanding about mental health - for children's sake.

The one in four statistic is not a coincidence - because if you live in Liverpool, Sefton or Kirkby (or in fact anywhere in the UK), you also have a one in four chance of experiencing a mental illness at some point in your life.

A new campaign, called For Children's Sake, aims to point out that mental health problems don't just affect a minority, but hit many families, regardless of age, race or background.

In all its forms - depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder among them - mental illness is devastating to the sufferer. But it is also devastating for the family - especially children. As well as dealing with a poorly mum or dad, they have to deal with the stigma of being the child of a 'nutter'." One young woman, Grace, knows all about that. She doesn't want her whole name to be used because her past has made her so wary

She says: "When I was little people used to run after us in the street shouting at my mum, calling her a mad cow. And kids would gather outside and try and wind her up.

"These were the same kids I had to see day in, day out, where I was growing up in Everton. Me and my mum lived alone and to be honest I had been looking after her since I was about eight. I had to deal with everybody else."

Grace's mum was always 'different', she says. The family history suggests that she was brain damaged at birth, and went on to develop epilepsy and a personality disorder. Whatever its technical name, it meant that Grace led a far from normal life.

She says: "It was chaotic. She tried her best but it was intense. She would sometimes get up and disappear for a night and leave me alone. Once she did it and didn't come back and I ended up in foster care for a while. Or we'd be in town and she'd start screaming and shouting, and walk off and leave me, or I'd walk off from her because I was so embarrassed. There were times she'd walk into my room at five in the morning and start throwing the wardrobes open because she thought there was someone in there, or I'd got her purse or something.

"Once, when I was about 10, I told her about some problems I was having at school. She did nothing for a whole year, then when it was all forgotten about, came in shouting the odds. And if she took a fit, I had to walk down to the nearest phone box and call an ambulance. My education suffered because I didn't go to school much - sometimes I was scared to leave her alone.

"People just didn't understand. I had some good friends, but some people were just vile, always calling us names. Especially when you are a teenager and everything embarrasses you, it was terrible."

Grace, now 22, became involved with Barnardo's young carers project, where she now works as a volunteer as well as still caring for her mum.

Barnardo's, together with mental health care provider Mersey Care NHS Trust, have launched the campaign.

The quotes that accompany the cards are heartbreaking - and every one has genuinely come out of the mouths of local children.

Liz Gray, children's service manager for Barnardo's, says: "It is estimated that there are more than 1,000 young carers in Liverpool. At least 30% of these children will be caring for parents who have a mental illness. The children are three times more likely to develop a mental health problem themselves, a quarter miss school, and many suffer from bullying or a lack of confidence.

"We hoped this campaign will help remove the stigma of mental health by pointing out the way it can affect such vulnerable people."

Charles Flynn, deputy chief executive of Mersey Care, says: "This project is part of our commitment to challenging the stigma attached to mental distress. We hope it will prick the conscience of those in our community who use inappropriate language or behaviour towards people with mental illness and inadvertently, their children and families. We know that very often, this isn't done with any malice, but is ignorant, thoughtless behaviour and this campaign may just encourage people to stop and think about what they are doing."

Grace has now left home but still looks after her mum. She says: "It is hard. I don't know what each day will bring. She is very demanding. I need her to learn to live independently so I can try and get on with my own life - I want to be a librarian - but have a lot of education to catch up on. It is not easy and sometimes I do get angry. But she's my mum, and I love her."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 28, 2006
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