Mum describes heartache year on from daughter's tragic death
- Credit: Mel Oakes-Buckingham
The mum of a teenager who died in the midst of mental health struggles has described her family's heartache a year after her death - as new figures lay bare the devastating impact of the pandemic on children.
More children and young people are being referred to mental health services in Norfolk than anywhere else in the country with the social isolation and unpredictability of the pandemic proving a crippling factor in this.
According to the latest figures published, relating to September, thousands of young people are either waiting for or receiving mental health treatment in Norfolk alone.
And with hundreds of new referrals each month, the emotional toll of the pandemic on young people has never been clearer.
Former Sprowston High School pupil Emily Oakes-Buckingham was just 13 when a tragic incident led to her death on January 8, 2021.
And a year on, her mum Mel is still coming to terms with the loss of her oldest daughter - and emphasised just how much of an impact the pandemic had on her.
While Emily lived with anxiety ahead of Covid hitting, she had made huge positive strides in the months prior.
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Mrs Oakes-Buckingham said: "In the January before Covid Emily had a huge, huge breakthrough.
"She was never comfortable going round other people's homes or having sleepovers - she just wouldn't do it.
"But she was offered the chance to go and see Melanie Martinez at the O2 Arena with a friend and her parents. I suggested that she take an overnight bag in case she wanted to stay over with them but she insisted that would never happen.
"But she travelled to London with two people she had never met before [her friend's parent's] and then text me that evening asking to stay the night after all."
It was a landmark moment for the whole family and to Mrs Oakes-Buckingham a sign that her beloved daughter was getting better and better at managing her mental health troubles.
But all this changed when the pandemic hit, with the challenges of social isolation, remote learning and changes of routine all taking their toll on Emily.
"She got so stressed about keeping up with school work and being taken out of her usual routine," Mrs Oakes-Buckingham said.
"She lost swimming, which was one of her biggest passions and that really affected her.
"She was terrified of getting behind with her school work and always put such a lot of pressure on herself."
Throughout the first lockdown, Emily's anxiety grew, but once restrictions eased she saw some improvement, buoyed by being reunited with friends and the prospect of things "returning to normal".
But after her first week back at school she was immediately sent back into isolation following a positive case in one of her classes.
"She wasn't told directly, the school texted me and that really hit Emily hard - she was devastated that she wasn't able to say proper goodbyes to her friends and got more worried about keeping up with work."
And when the country returned to lockdown in November things took a huge turn for the worse.
Her mum added: "The November lockdown was horrendous - it was a nightmare living in my house.
"She was just desperate for things to go back to normal but everything she had to look forward to was taken away.
"She always had highs and lows and having things to look forward to was what got her through the day.
"She would always pin her hopes on one thing she knew she had coming up - but in lockdowns these were all taken away."
On her mum's advice, Emily reluctantly sought the help of mental health services after being referred by her GP, but was not treated as an urgent case.
Her mum added: "When we spoke to CAHMS she was excited about Christmas, so was having a good day, so perhaps wasn't seen as of much of a concern as if they had caught her on a good day."
And she said the impact the pandemic has had on children did not surprise her, because of how lockdowns have been shrouded in uncertainty and took away so many things young people look forward to and rely on.
Mrs Oakes-Buckingham added that revelations around parties at Downing Street during the midst of lockdown had hit her family hard.
She said: "We followed the rules to the letter and Emily died - had we broken them, perhaps she still would have been with us.
"One of Emily's favourite things to do was to take walks with a family we are really close with. However, my friend has three children and I have two, so that took us over the rule of six by one.
"Emily died because we followed the rules - so the rules being broken by the very people who set them is a dagger to the heart."
'Trust your instincts'
Mrs Oakes-Buckingham shared her daughter's story on social media and was moved by the response - with one person commenting that hearing about Emily had helped her save her own daughter's life.
But more than a year after Emily's death, the heartache still remains for her entire family.
"You just find yourself getting little reminders every day," said Mrs Oakes-Buckingham. "It does not get any easier."
"My advice to any other parent would be to trust your instincts when seeking care for your child - you know them best.
"I knew that she needed something to help her sleep and I wish I had pushed harder for that with her GP. If you think your child is not okay, it means they are not - you know them better than anybody, so trust your instincts.
"The most important thing to do is whatever it takes to take pressure off of your child."
In September 2021, the most recent figures available, 3,318 young people were receiving treatment from mental health services in Norfolk alone.
On top of this, 1,577 were awaiting assessment and 2,279 were awaiting treatment - with 651 new referrals made that month.
A spokesperson for the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust said: "Covid-19 has presented the NHS with major challenges. Sadly this has included a big increase in referrals which has meant that waiting times for the assessment and treatment of young people's mental health services have grown.
"We know some young people have waited too long and we apologise to any young person affected by this situation.
"Everyone is working hard to turn things around, including extra investment and more staff to boost the amount of treatment and support on offer."