Like everybody else I’m still restricted by the present rules aimed at protecting us from the coronavirus – let’s all hope these restrictions will be eased soon as the disease is brought under control.
Meanwhile I’m celebrating my own release from a much longer spell in lockdown – I’m referring to Section 37/41 of the Mental Health Act which has controlled my life since 1989. On 23 April this year a Tribunal finally discharged me from the Section!
For the first time in half a lifetime I feel as if I’m a normal member of society. I feel free.
Let me explain more…
Back in the last century…
You don’t get put on a Section 37/41 for no reason and I want to be honest about why that happened to me – including details of things I did in the depths of severe illness which I deeply regret.
31 years ago I was in hospital with very severe illness. I heard nurses coming and I was completely paranoid and terrified. I smashed a photo frame to stop them coming near me, to threaten them. Unfortunately a nurse’s hand got cut. I feel so terrible about this – even to this day, the guilt is awful.
After that my world was turned upside down as the Mental Health Act was used to take long-term control over my life. I was sent to prison in Bristol for a fortnight, far from home, with no visitors. From there I was sent to Northampton – St Andrews – even further from home, and I was there for nearly a year. It was too far away for visitors. If you didn’t behave you were put into a ‘blank’ room – all walls, no windows. You’d stay there for 24 hours. No compassion was shown by staff – they were not allowed to show emotion.
From there I went to Caswell in my home town, which was much better. Just to see my family was so important. The hospital had a much more relaxed atmosphere. I was still very ill – very negative and paranoid. At one point I didn’t eat or drink for 11 days. I got a second opinion doctor who forced me to have electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I had 12 sessions and it was absolutely horrendous. I felt as though choice had been taken away from me. Luckily my Auntie went to see the consultant and said “no more”.
I was at Caswell for two years and then there was an incident where I pushed a nurse away and I was sent to Ashworth high secure hospital in Liverpool. It was petrifying. I wasn’t afraid about physical violence, but mentally I was terrified. I was on a personality disorder (PD) ward and most girls had PD – and unfortunately some of them tried to hang themselves in the toilets. I was so frightened to go to the toilet that I didn’t drink. We were told that if we saw them trying to hang themselves we were supposed to shout “knife” so they could cut them down. But there was no working through the issue afterwards.
There was no dignity at Ashworth. Nurses were more like prison officers. Thankfully I went back to Caswell after eight months there. It was a much better experience and I was much better then as I was taking Clozaril, which works for me.
And since then…
I have had many ups and downs – and maybe I will tell that story too in due course!
But throughout all that time I have lived under the shadow of the Mental Health Act which has imprisoned me within its rules if not (most of the time) behind locked doors.
Finally a Tribunal decided last month that the Section could be removed and I became free!
The Technical Bit
- Section 37 of the Mental Health Act enables magistrates and Crown courts to send a patient convicted of an imprisonable offence to a hospital instead of prison
- Section 41 (a “Restriction Order”) enables Crown courts to add restrictions to the Section 37 order: this means the Home Office decides when you can be given leave and when you can leave hospital; and, if it is agreed that you can leave hospital, conditions are attached to your discharge so that you could be brought back to hospital if you do not comply with those conditions.
The experience I describe above was my inspiration to challenge the Mental Health Act and find a better way. I will return to that theme next time but please take a look at “Jo’s Law” – ideas on how to make a law which is a friend to patients as well as keeping everybody safe.
Meanwhile, if you or those you care for face difficulty during the current crisis, don’t hesitate to press your local services for help. Hafal’s specific advice for those with a mental illness can be found here.
Jo Roberts is a mental health campaigner who was on the receiving end of the Mental Health Act for over 30 years. In the past she has received compulsory treatment; some of that treatment was deeply unpleasant and even terrifying. Jo is campaigning for a progressive Mental Health Act fit for the 21st Century – an Act that gives patients and carers in Wales and beyond a fairer deal. Read more…