My friend tried to kill himself when we were in the same psychiatric unit. Now I support others in similar situations
I was awoken by the sound of gasps and bangs coming from the bedroom next door. It was 4am on a medium-secure psychiatric unit where it’s always noisy, but I instinctively knew this wasn’t good. I ran into my neighbour’s room and found him in the process of killing himself. I screamed for help.
The man trying to end his own life was a friend. We had both attended the same pupil referral unit I was sent to after being excluded from school and for different reasons we ended up on the same psychiatric ward years later. After the nursing team had managed the incident, I asked him why he had taken such a step. He said he’d had enough of life and believed that things would never get better for “people like us”, and that our destiny was “death or to be in places like this forever”. He was discharged shortly after, but within weeks I was told that he had died of an overdose. He had only just turned 30.
His death had a profound effect on me. I spent weeks reflecting on our last conversation, questioning how we had ended up being incarcerated in a mental health ward. Was he right? Will “people like us” never get to live a normal, free life?
The odds weren’t in our favour. I was first detained in a child and adolescent mental health service when I was 14. I had a paranoid episode that led me to commit grievous bodily harm and spent the next three years in the healthcare wings of young offenders’ institutions. I was later transferred to a medium-secure forensic mental health service, where I spent the next few years. This meant I joined one of the most stigmatised and traumatised groups in society. I was excluded not only from mainstream education but more broadly from opportunities, employment and personal relationships.
When you are detained under the Mental Health Act – often for your own safety as much as that of others – you lose so many of the freedoms we all take for granted. You no longer have the freedom of choice: where and when you can go somewhere, who you can be with. Particularly distressing for me was having my freedom to practise religion removed when my prayers were interpreted as evidence I was hearing voices and talking to myself again.
My dignity was also taken from me. I have experienced the trauma of being repeatedly strip searched, physically restrained, forcibly medicated and placed in isolation. The extended periods in solitary confinement only exacerbated my mental distress, and the powerlessness I felt made me increasingly angry and resentful towards the status-quo within mental health services at the time.
My friend’s death made me realise that something had to change. I knew the coercion and control exerted by many mental health institutions was part of the reason for why outcomes for mental health patients were often so bleak. There had to be a re-balance of power which gave patients input into their own treatment, with clinical and medical teams working alongside service users to agree a care pathway that was tailored to their own individual needs.
I channelled my growing anger into a focused campaign to create change from within. I approached the Care Quality Commission (CQC) – the health and social care regulator – about my experiences and the issues affecting mental health services that urgently needed addressing.
Alongside the input of some excellent individuals involved in my care, I am sure that the drive I had to improve mental healthcare helped kickstart my recovery. I was discharged from hospital in 2015, and on the recommendation of a CQC inspector I had come to know well during my efforts to improve services, I applied to become an expert by experience for them.
I got the job. Being employed for the first time in my life gave me hope and value, and helped to support my recovery. My passion to help others experiencing mental distress continued, and three and a half years after being discharged I am now expert by experience lead for Cygnet Health Care, a mental healthcare and learning disability provider.
My role is primarily focused around peer support. I talk to patients and their families within our services nationally. I listen to them and ensure that they have a voice at the very highest levels of the organisation. I have walked in their shoes and the implicit trust between us means they feel safe to talk to me; they know I am on their side and my presence shows that it is possible to get better, that recovery is real and that there is hope.
Various studies on the impact of peer support within mental health services found that it can promote hope and belief in the possibility of recovery. I often wonder: if it had been available for “people like us” back then, would my friend still be alive?
This piece by Rafik Hamaizia was first seen on ‘The Guardian‘, 14 December 2018.