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Emily Marsh: Belfast teen with eating disorder spent two years in London hospital as there is no treatment available in Northern Ireland

Parents tell of how heartbroken they are being 300 miles away from their daughter in new TV documentary.

By Suzanne Breen

Published 28/06/2015

Emily Marsh.
Emily Marsh.
Emily Marsh, as a child, with her dad Chris.

The family of a Belfast teenager has revealed their anguish that she has spent two years hospitalised in London for an eating disorder because no specialist treatment is available in Northern Ireland.

In a TV documentary, which will be screened on Wednesday, the parents of Emily Marsh tell of how homesick their daughter is and how heartbroken they are being 300 miles away from her.

Emily’s father, university lecturer Chris, told Sunday Life: “Every weekend we have to leave our other daughters behind and make the difficult and emotionally draining journey to London to see her.

“No parent should have to go to airports and board planes in order to spend time with their daughter. Being separated is very traumatic for both Emily and us.”

Mum Katy said: “We miss Emily so much and she misses us. You feel insecure when you know that you’re not on the doorstep and that, if something awful happened, it would take you half a day to get there.”

Emily was diagnosed with an eating disorder as a 16-year-old schoolgirl. She was admitted into Beechcroft, Northern Ireland’s only adolescent psychiatric care unit but it couldn’t provide the specialised treatment she required.

She had to be transferred to an adult ward in the City Hospital to be fitted with a nasal gastric tube. She was later returned to Beechcroft but her family say she deteriorated further, becoming so ill she was pulling out the tube.

She was then sent to London where she has been receiving specialist care for two years.

Emily is just one of many sick children across the UK being treated hundreds of miles away from home because NHS cuts mean no similar care is available locally. Their plight will be disclosed in a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Wednesday.

It’s been made by award-winning Northern Ireland film-maker Alison Millar, who directed the highly acclaimed documentary, ‘The Disappeared’, and who won a BAFTA for her film, ‘The Shame of the Catholic Church’, exposing the clerical cover-up of child abuse.

Wednesday night’s documentary will also tell the story of Beth, a 15-year-old Hull schoolgirl with Asperger’s who was moved between 14 different hospitals across Britain.

Single mum Kathy tells of the strain having to travel hundreds of miles to see her sick daughter has placed on the family. Kathy had to reduce her work hours so severely that she couldn’t pay her mortgage and her home was repossessed.

In the film, she is seen on the phone at night trying to comfort her daughter who is upset and missing her. “Get your pillow and cuddle it and imagine it’s me,” Kathy says. “But it’s not you,” Beth replies.

The film reveals how children with mental illnesses often end up in A&E departments, or even police cells, because their parents have nowhere else to turn.

When 13-year-old Oli, who has autism and epilepsy, tried to kill himself and then attacked mum Sharron, an NHS psychiatrist — whom Sharron phoned in desperation — advised her to give him additional medication and, if that didn’t work, to ring the police.

The programme reveals that while three-quarters of all mental illness starts in childhood, only six per cent of the NHS’s mental health budget is spent on the under-18s.

Film-maker Millar said she was “deeply moved” by the stories she heard: “The system is failing critically ill children. Kids here are being sent for treatment in England and Scotland.

“That means parents are forced to make journeys not by car, train or bus — which is bad enough — but by plane.

“The Beechcroft unit has only 18 beds for the whole of Northern Ireland and it can’t provide specialist care for eating disorders.”

Millar claimed children were being treated in geriatric wards because there was no other place for them. “This is a crisis and it needs fixed now,” she said.

“Northern Ireland already has the worst suicide rate in Europe. With the rise of online bullying, things are only going to deteriorate further. We pride ourselves on our family values but the level of care provided to sick children and their parents doesn’t live up to that.”

Millar said she had made DUP Health Minister Simon Hamilton aware of the documentary. “I hope he watches it and that it spurs him into taking action,” she said.

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