'And everyone seemed weird and terrifying': Frances Rickford hears how Sophie (right, as a child), a victim of abuse, was admitted to a psychiatric ward

SOPHIE is an articulate young woman of 20, about to qualify as a nursery nurse, with a bright and confident three-year-old daughter. Five years ago she was admitted to the psychiatric ward of her local general hospital, and although she was there for little more than 24 hours she is still haunted by the experience.

Sophie's life has included some nasty experiences. From the age of eight she was frequently sexually abused by her father. At 11 she plucked up the courage to tell her teacher: but after days of sceptical questioning she was taken into care and told that if she did not retract her statement within 10 days she would be sent away. She retracted it, and went home to more abuse which only stopped when her father left the family three years later.

The family moved to Kettering in Northamptonshire. With her father gone, Sophie began to vent her pain and anger on her mother and became violent and unmanageable. She was taken into care, and at 15 told her social worker what her father had done to her.

By now child sexual abuse had become an important issue in social work, with strict procedures on how to deal with children who reported it. Sophie was taken to the police to make a full statement.

'At the police station I was terrified no one would believe me again,' she says. 'And I had to dredge up all my memories of what had happened. I was reliving things I had blocked from my mind, and I couldn't cope.'

Next day she bought a bottle of paracetamol and told her social worker she was going to kill herself. He took her to her GP who called a psychiatrist.

'The psychiatrist said I needed some tender loving care and should go into hospital. My social worker was against it, but I had to go anyway.' She was taken to Addington ward, the adult psychiatric ward of Kettering General Hospital.

'I'd never been anywhere like it before. There was no one else near my age, and everyone seemed weird and terrifying. I remember a very tall woman opposite me who kept taking all her clothes off and telling me she was the Queen of Sheba. Other people were rocking and moaning to themselves.

'I told a nurse I shouldn't be there - that these people were all crazy - and she told me off for having the wrong attitude. The staff followed me everywhere. When I went to the toilet I had to leave the door open and someone stood and watched me.'

Sophie was removed from the hospital by her horrified mother the following evening. But the torment did not stop there. She was so afraid of being sent back she would hyperventilate and pass out rather than risk expressing her feelings.

Sophie's career as a psychiatric inpatient was unusually short. According to a study by Mhemooda Malek of the Children's Society, children as young as six have spent up to 17 months as psychiatric inpatients; in fact, the older the children, the shorter the admission period, possibly because they were more likely to have been admitted to adult wards where there was greater pressure on beds. But official figures show that more children of all ages are ending up in psychiatric wards.

Peter Wilson, director of Young Minds, which represents professions working with disturbed young people, said: 'It is damaging to young people to be placed in adult psychiatric wards, and if that is the explanation for the rise in numbers it is very worrying indeed. But there is no doubt that some children do need inpatient psychiatric help.'

Dr Brian Jacobs, consultant child psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London, said: 'There are probably far too few beds for children. The pool of potential admissions is always larger than the number of places available. Treatment is expensive, but, if we can turn these children's lives around, the savings are astronomical.'

Dr Jacobs admits there is no evidence on how helpful psychiatric treatment is to so-called 'conduct disordered' children and is planning a pilot project to measure its effectiveness.

According to Greg Richardson, a consultant adolescent psychiatrist in York, until there is evidence that children can be helped by psychiatric admission they should be kept out of hospital. 'I do not admit children unless they are psychiatrically ill, and there is a difference between psychiatric illness and disturbance by life's circumstances. If they have not got an illness that is treatable, they do not belong in hospital. Young children do not suffer from psychiatric illnesses that warrant admission.'

But to social services managers trying to deal with young people whose behaviour is unmanageable, it seems reasonable to expect the health service to share responsibility.

Bob Lewis, social services director in Stockport, said: 'Somebody has to deal with these youngsters. . . . Specialist residential units like the Peper Harrow therapeutic community have closed because not enough children were placed there.'

Sophie acknowledges that her own behaviour was unmanageable and feels that she emerged because of the support and patience of teachers, her social worker and her mother. At 17 she started two years' work as a community service volunteer looking after young children, which she says boosted her confidence and self-esteem. And becoming a mother had given her life a new meaning.

'At 15 I could not control my anger. I wanted to make other people feel the pain I had felt. But going into hospital was worse than anything that had happened to me, and I shall never forget it.'

(Photograph omitted)