What it’s really like being sectioned in a failing NHS

I was stood, in the middle of Blackhorse Road, one of the busiest main roads in Walthamstow, shouting at drivers to divert the traffic.

The voices in my head warned me of a black void that was going to engulf this part of east London, which would be the start of the apocalypse. I couldn’t let them drive into the void, so there I was desperately trying to divert traffic in order to save the innocent. The void seemed to close in around me.

I started to panic and the suicidal thoughts quickly seeped in. Desperately looking around, I clocked onto the bus coming towards me and I wholeheartedly threw myself in front of it.

There was a great lapse of time where there was nothing. When I was aware of what was happening I was in the back of an ambulance, strapped down to the bed with officers standing over the top of me, forcibly pinning down my arms and handcuffing them to the ambulance bed.

A string of verbal abuse escaped, amongst streams of tears and screams, in a desperate attempt to convince the hoard of officers and paramedics that I was completely fine.

Hurled out of the ambulance like an angry bull without the rest of its herd, I was still handcuffed and profusely sore. A flurry of people in nurse’s uniforms, came to their aid through a cold, steel door.

Panic finally set in, and as I stood to vomit, the staff circled like vultures, forcing me to sit back down. Vomit now sat uncomfortably in my lap.

“I couldn’t let them drive into the void” [Flickr:Fabio Venni]

I was then dragged through a piercingly bright, clinical corridor and forcibly thrown into an empty room with nothing more than a bed made out of blue matting. Forced over to the bed, faced down and forcibly detained, the officers began stripping me of everything that I had.

A tall male nurse came into the room. Through the nurse’s deep Irish accent, all I was able to understand was that I was being detained. The nurses and officers left the room and I was all alone.

This was my first few hours of being sectioned. As embarrassed as I already felt, the next three days were completely degrading. For the first 24 hours, the bright clinical light was left buzzing, so sleep was non-existent.

Some 72 hours later, I still hadn’t eaten, and I found myself drinking water from the tap in the bathroom. I was still in my vomit-stained jeans, which by then were bone dry.

This experience was the turning point of my relationship with Bipolar Disorder. Up until this moment, I celebrated the fact that I had never been sectioned nor deemed a risk to myself and others.

I started to panic and the suicidal thoughts quickly seeped in.

Whilst there is still plenty of work to be done, there is now an openness when talking about most mental health problems. Yet, for the more complex mental health illnesses, like Bipolar Disorder or schizophrenia, there remains stigmatism and silence, especially when they lead to patients being detained and forcibly treated against their will.

It is the feeling of shame over the fact that through a period of time, we were generally not well enough to function outside of hospital walls. After being formally sectioned, I had lost all sense of self and sense of dignity.

A 2017 report looking into the Mental Health Act by the Mental Health Alliance (MHA), shows that more than 63,622 people in England were detained between 2015 and 2016. According to MHA this was a 10 per cent increase on the previous year, while the numbers have increased by 47 per cent over the last decade.

The survey also highlighted that there is a deep concern for people’s human rights, autonomy and basic dignity when the Act is enforced to detain and section those already in a vulnerable state.

Kai is 22 and has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder; he was sectioned after attempting to take his own life for a second time. He found the trauma of being sectioned worsened his condition.

“I actually tried killing myself for a third time while I was actually in hospital, because I just could not deal with my own thoughts and feelings, let alone everyone else’s. I spent most of my time curled up in my bed sobbing,” he said.

Xanax is one drug used for bipolar medication [Flickr:Dean812]

Yet, what got to Kai most of all, was not having any say in his treatment, and as an adult, he wasn’t given any information about the treatment he was receiving, nor why he was receiving that treatment. Instead, the staff informed his family, rather than asked his permission.

“All of your rights are taken from you as soon as you’re admitted to hospital. You don’t belong to yourself anymore. You are 100 per cent their property, and all your basic human rights are gone,” Kai told Artefact.

“This affected my relationship with my family quite badly and I became distant, quiet and distrusting. It was almost as though I was a completely different person,” he said.

“I knew they weren’t telling me the truth about my treatment – it seemed as though I wasn’t allowed to know. I ended up requesting not to see my family on visiting days, and I lost all faith in the staff’s ability to look after me or help me in any way shape or form.”

After a while, Kai started spending most of his time in the garden, where he would sing and generally just take in the outside world, despite still being on hospital grounds and under the watch of the staff.

“I finally began to start thinking clearly again. After a while, I started seeing my family again and I started to cooperated with my therapist. They never managed to gain all of my trust, but I trusted them enough to finally feel better within myself.”

Like Kai, 28-year-old Dean also felt he had no say about his treatment. When he was 21, a close bereavement triggered a psychotic episode.

“You are 100 per cent their property, and all your basic human rights are gone.”

“I was constantly hearing voices who were angrily vengeful. They would often try to get me to hurt myself or hurt other people because of their ‘sins’. I was seeing evaporations of angels and demons, who were showing me the fringes of three different worlds – heaven, hell and purgatory, and what held the worlds together,” Dean explained.

“I was also experiencing great lapses of time that was more frustrating than anything else. After a while, suicidal thoughts and self-harm crept in. I would burn myself with cigarettes and I would cut myself on a daily basis,” he told us.

“One day I got into the shower with all of my clothes on. The voices in my head were telling me that I was better off dead. I just curled up in the bathtub, with my clothes still on, and just allowed the water to soak through and sobbed. My dad came in and had no idea how to react, so he called an ambulance, and they came with the police.”

For Dean, this was the most traumatic part: “I’ve never known the police to be so aggressive towards mental health patients. Their understanding of mental health is very limited, but this was completely degrading. They picked me up and carried me down the stairs like a hunk of rotten meat, with my whole estate watching. I could feel their eyes burning into me – nothing stays quiet when you live on an estate.

“I’ve never felt so embarrassed and ashamed of myself in my entire life. I was screaming and crying for them not to do anything because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was pinned down on the ambulance bed and strapped down, until the screaming turned into begging to be left alone. They made me feel as though I was a criminal, not someone who needed or deserved to be helped.”

Bipolar Medication [Flickr:Dean812]

However, Dean found himself fighting to be heard, especially when it came to being medicated. “I didn’t want to be medicated for the rest of my life. Medication often made me feel as though I had no feelings at all. Every day is the same mundane routine when you are on medication, it’s as though you’re a robot,” he said.

“But if you missed even one dosage of your medication, they would literally force their way into your room, even if you’re naked. They would wake you up then physically force you to take your medication. At the beginning, I used to fight back. I honestly just wanted to get back to how I used to be. Happy and free. But what got to me the most was the complete lack of respect and privacy.”

But it is not just the problem of not being heard when it comes to medical treatment, during her time in hospital on a mixed gender ward, 32-year-old Lisa felt powerless when she tried to make a complaint about a sexual assault by a male orderly.

“I tried to report the incident but I was accused of lying,” Lisa explained. The staff at the hospital went to the extent of taunting her – referring to her as ‘the drama queen’.

“I guess it’s like trying to make a complaint against an officer. Without the means to actually do something, you are left to deal with the consequences by yourself. You are completely voiceless.” In Lisa’s case, it seemed as though any complaints were assumed by the staff to be nothing more than a manic hallucination.

Lisa explained: “Any confidentiality that you try to confide in all goes out of the window because they think that you’re too sick to give a damn, or feel as though you’re too sick to be aware of what is going on or even aware of your own thoughts and feelings.”

Despite her ordeal with a male nurse, Lisa still has some appreciation for mental health staff, but it is limited. “Mental health nurses can be amazing, don’t get me wrong, but in hospital, the staff don’t really have any time or resources for you at all, and you hardly have the chance to meet with your occupational therapist,” she told Artefact.

“They picked me up and carried me down the stairs like a hunk of rotten meat”

“Since the incident though, I have had such a hard time trusting men in general, especial male nurses and doctors.” There have been times since then that Lisa believes that she should have gone to the hospital for help with suicidal thoughts, but was too horrified by the thought of being sectioned again.

“I couldn’t bear to be sectioned again because it is the most traumatic experience I’ve ever had to endure. It is so traumatising that over the years I’ve taught myself how to suffer in silence.”

Many of us who have been sectioned once, never want to be sectioned again. It’s almost a pit stop, that refreshes us and straightens us out. It is because we do not want to feel degraded or ashamed again, so taking our medication and seeking out out-patient treatment seems to be the better option.

But for many of us, getting the right out-patient treatment and medication is difficult. Some wait almost 18 months for their first specialist appointment.

This leads to an unfortunate increase of patients being detained for their own safety or sectioned, when out-patient treatment could have been of a great benefit.

Those who have spoken to us about being sectioned believe that the lack of funding for mental health support is partly to blame for how they were treated.

This is view is shared by Kirsty, who used to work as a mental health nurse: “There isn’t enough funding to help staff the hospitals, which is affecting how patients are treated. They simply do not have the time to deal with the amount of patients who are detained or sectioned, because funding cuts means staff cuts too,” she confirmed.

“Being under-staffed and under pressure can affect the work nurses and psychiatrists do, and of course, there are cases where it almost sounds like something you’d see in a screen play.”

Kirsty raises an important issue: Mental health services are facing daily cuts to their funding, which is affecting the way that professionals are able to work. Since 2010, mental health services have dramatically declined in their efficiency to care for patients. As a result, staff are under pressure and morale is low.

“There isn’t enough funding to help staff the hospitals, which is affecting how patients are treated.”

According to recent research, in the last seven years, 4,000 psychiatrists and 30,000 mental health nurses have taken the hard decision to leave what now seems to be more of an industry than a fundamental part of the health sector.

Although recent government initiatives are now leading to the recruitment of newly-trained staff, the number of experienced nurses leaving the profession far out-numbers those joining.

Reform within the mental health sector needs to take place, but not at the expense of both the NHS staff and the patients. The staff need to have the necessary management support, to help encourage and support them, so that they can achieve their goals in helping patients and meeting individual patient needs.

As well as a healthy management system, this would help to promote a healthy frame of mind for the staff to be able to deal with more complex patients.

Training schemes for the staff need to be modernised too, to reflect on how patients feel they are being treated, with more time for monitoring how individual trusts operate, to ensure the best quality of care the patients.

More investment in staffing would help to relieve the already overloaded staff, while allowing them to be able to properly care for us as inpatients, who feel as though their needs are being neglected. This could also give patients more time with nurses and psychiatrists too.

“In hospital, the staff don’t really have any time or resources for you at all.”

Investment also needs to be put into the hospital environment, therapeutic and recreational resources. This would also give patients not only time have access to sports and leisure, but to things that could allow them to feel connect to the outside world.

Ultimately, the mental health sector is in dire need of financial support from government to make the changes needed to be able to properly care for patients. Healthy reform and appropriate funding could benefit the working standards for the staff and patients alike.

Luckily for me, my time in hospital was less than five weeks, and I am as well as I have been for quite some time. I am back at university, taken up karate again after months of neglecting my beloved sport, and back on medication.

I am meeting up with friends without the need to overindulge in alcohol, and I have the capability to deal with stress without needing to worry whether it would trigger a manic episode. Of course, nothing runs smoothly, but I am lucky enough to have been able to go back to the world I know.

 


Featured Image by Military Photography via Flickr CC