I was told 'psychiatrists would be out of a job if we could stop child abuse'

As the Jimmy Savile allegations come to light, it's time we spoke about the strong link between child abuse and mental illness.

Share
Related Topics

The recent expose of child abuse allegedly perpetrated by Sir Jimmy Savile was a massive shock to me.

As a 1980s kid I used to love Jim’ll fix-it and was once greatly envious of those children who got to sit on his knee. Now not so much. While not being my greatest hero, Savile was none the less an integral part of my childhood. A part which has now been completely tarnished. 

Were I not a doctor, these recent allegations of abuse may have felt like a watershed moment for me. An ending of a certain naivety bestowed upon me by the good fortune of a sheltered, happy and abuse free childhood.

As a medic, that innocence ended when I first set foot on a psychiatric ward a decade or so ago. I was astounded at how many of the inpatients of both sexes had been abused as children or young adults.

In medical school I had learnt that mental illness was something that randomly afflicted people due to a combination of genetics and bad luck. I had been taught that in mental illness brain chemicals go wrong in the same way that chromosomes go wrong in Downs syndrome or blood clotting goes wrong in haemophiliacs.

Sitting reading through the medical records of the female patients on the acute psychiatric ward, there was not a single one who had not suffered some sort of trauma as a child or young adult. Stories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and usually a combination of all three jumped out from almost every set of notes.

The psychiatrist in charge of the ward told me that she would be out of a job if she could somehow prevent anyone from ever being abused as a child. The psychiatric wards would be empty she told me. Those wards weren’t empty. They were in fact full to bursting with desperate, damaged, unhappy people and there was always the constant pressure of more people needing to be admitted.

Clearly not everyone abused ends up with mental illness, and not everyone with mental illness was abused - genetics and brain chemicals also play their part. but the association between childhood trauma and mental illness in adulthood is well documented. I wonder if those adults who do the abusing even consider just how much pain and torment they cause and just how long it lasts.

Do the abusers even consider just how much pain and torment they cause?

When I worked in casualty we would have our regular self-harmers who repeatedly presented to the department with cuts on their arms that needed stitching up. In A&E, we only asked for the story of what happened that day and would often feel frustrated spending time mending what appeared to be self inflicted injuries.

Here in general practice, we get the whole life story and soon learn that although the cuts on the arms are self inflicted, the true underlying damage was often inflicted by an adult abuser some years earlier. As a doctor it doesn’t necessarily make self harm any easier a problem to manage, but at least it goes some way to help me understand it.

Of course everyone’s aim is to prevent children being abused right now. As with Jimmy Savile’s alleged victims, it has taken until adulthood before many of my patients have opened up to me about the abuse they suffered as children. My constant anxiety is about how many of my young patients are suffering abuse right now. Statistics would suggest at least one or two, which is a sobering thought and enough to persuade me to keep asking questions and staying vigilant.

There aren't many positives to take from the allegations that have flooded the media over recent weeks, but I hope that the current exposure, might encourage us adults to remember how common child abuse is and to always consider it in the children and young people we work with.

Even more importantly, perhaps it will allow one or two children to feel empowered enough to step forward and speak up about abuse they are suffering right now. Many of us are questioning those adults around during the 1970s and asking how 'did they let it happen'? It would be such an awful shame if in 40 years from now, we look back on this generation and ask the same thing.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?