The Worst Week Of My Life

June 2017

Ten years ago today I was voluntarily (persuaded by my then-husband and then-future husband) admitted to a psychiatric ward for suicidal ideation. I was a patient for just short of a week (with weekend release) and it was without question the worst thing I've ever experienced.

A psychiatric ward is probably the worst place imaginable for a person to try and regain their sanity. The staff tried their best but had their hands full with the "difficult patients"; those who tried to escape the locked ward several times a day, those who immediately attempted self-harm if left unattended for a moment, and those who made inarticulate threats of violence to anyone and everyone at the slightest provocation. Those who quietly complied with staff, who posed no immediate threat to anyone, were simply left alone with their pain.

My personal experience is not especially remarkable. The first two nights I was lucky and given a room to myself. My then-husband brought me several second-hand books so I stayed in my room and read, mostly undisturbed except for being checked by staff every hour or so. The exception to this was in the evenings when I was coaxed (or more accurately accused of "not engaging" and implied I would lose my weekend release if I didn't) out of my room to sit in the TV room for a while. That, strangely, is the least clear part of my recollection of that time. I remember it was the week when Britain's Got Talent was on television every evening, and I still get a bit of a sick feeling whenever I see it, but that's pretty much all.

Mealtimes were probably the most enlightening (although frightening at the time) part of my stay. A new face was a curiosity and the more confident (for want of a better euphemism) patients were drawn to me, partly to find out about me but mostly to tell me their own stories. Most were there against their will, sectioned (usually after an act of violence) for anything up to six months. Many spoke of horrific violence, as victims as well as perpetrators, as casually as if we were discussing the weather. Drugs were also a recurring theme, especially cannabis, one of the reasons I'm so opposed to its legalisation.

Things continued to get worse when I returned from weekend release to discover I had been moved into a room with three other beds, two of which were occupied. The beds had curtains to draw around, much like on a hospital ward, but you were not allowed to close them except for very short periods and not at night. Not that a curtain would have been any use to quieten the patient in my room who paced around the room all night crying and shouting in fear of things only she could see and hear. If night-times there could be accurately described as a waking nightmare for me, I can't even begin to imagine how to describe what they must have been for her.

In addition to the challenging living conditions, the lack of therapy provided was shocking. In my entire time there I had a single group session, in which I never spoke beyond my name, and two meetings with different psychiatrists who did not know what to do with me. Any new treatment would take weeks if not months to take effect and they could not keep me on the ward that long. I was not ill enough to be there, but not well enough not to be.

I'm incredibly lucky that ten years on I'm still here to tell this story; I suspect many of the people I met during my time on the psychiatric ward were not so fortunate. I don't know what the answer is, but I know we need to keep looking for one.