Trigger warning – This essay contains references to childhood sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual violence in psychiatric settings, coercive treatment, detainment, homelessness and physical restraint.
My first contact with NHS mental health services was in 2004. I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and after a short stay in psychiatric hospital referred to community mental health services. Since then, I’ve been told I have Bipolar Disorder, Bipolar Disorder with Borderline Personality Disorder Traits, Schizoaffective Disorder, Pre-Menstrual Dysphoria Disorder, Body Dysmorphia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and most recently Complex Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. I’m also on the waiting list to be assessed for Autism Spectrum Disorder. At times over the years, I’ve felt relieved to have a diagnosis, it’s helped me to try to understand the things I experience, and it’s been useful to explain things to family and friends. At times I’ve felt angry and confused and very ashamed about how mental health professionals talk about me. For a long time, it’s seemed to me that Psychiatrists were enthusiastic about telling me what was wrong with me but were often at a loss about how to help me. Having certain diagnosis meant I was able to connect with other people who had similar experiences, but every few years my diagnosis changed, or a new diagnosis was added to my record which was confusing. Now I’m often lonely and unsure about which group I fit the criteria for, or which label I should share with new people in my life. I feel like a reused jam jar that has had so many stickers on it, everyone has forgotten what it originally contained. It impacts my life in lots of different ways. Even when I’m well I find it hard to work out what to write on job applications and holiday insurance forms. When you’ve had as many labels as I have and you try to be honest about it, even the most enthusiastic customer service person or human resources employee becomes confused about what they’re supposed to put in the box for mental health illness.
Throughout the last sixteen years I’ve repeatedly experienced episodes of something called psychosis and I often feel a lot of emotions very intensely. Psychosis means that sometimes what I think is real and what other people think is real are different. Part of my psychosis involves delusions that I’m being filmed all the time. Last year my symptoms suddenly got a lot worse very suddenly. I had just spent 18 months gradually coming off lithium with the support of the community mental health team and I started having psychotic symptoms. I was finding it very hard to sleep. For 14 years I’ve worked in public libraries and I’d just resigned from my job to take a role working in service user involvement and coproduction within the NHS. This role was very stressful and unsupported. In March 2020 I had a breakdown and ended up spending five months in and out of psychiatric hospitals in Bristol.
During this time, I had flashbacks and memories of being sexually abused as a child. Before this, these memories had been repressed. It was a savage and chaotic episode of illness and it was the most unwell I’ve ever been. When I became unwell, I lost my income because my NHS role wasn’t contracted. Whilst I was in hospital, I lost the tenancy on my flat, so I spent months longer in hospital because I was homeless and there was no appropriate accommodation available in Bristol. The psychiatric ward environment made me more unwell but there was nowhere else to send me. I was too unwell to live with friends and there were long waiting lists for specialist mental health supported accommodation. Eventually, after five months in and out of different wards in Bristol I was referred to the Bristol Council’s homeless pathway and abruptly discharged from hospital. I was discharged with no package of support in place, waiting for an unconfirmed place in a women’s homeless hostel and on the understanding that after two weeks at Link House I would have to pack my bag and leave regardless of if accommodation had become available. A member of staff on the ward told me that they’d known patients be discharged from hospital with nowhere to go at all. In this situation patients are told to present themselves to the local council offices as homeless then the council try to arrange emergency accommodation at a local Bed and Breakfast.
I remember very vividly last year’s admission and it’s an example of how broken the system is and the impact of care that is not human rights based. Being contained is really challenging for me. For a long time whilst I was detained, I wasn’t allowed to leave the ward on my own. A psychiatric ward can be noisy and chaotic and at times very frightening. Alarms go off numerous times a day. Staff work very long hours in a stressful environment on low pay and they do not have much time to sit and talk with people. The turnover for staff working in these environments is high so there may be lots of people you don’t know working there and lots of agency staff. Your life is being controlled by strangers. If you don’t take your medication as prescribed you may be physically restrained and injected with medication. I’ve struggled with eating disorders for many years and food is served at certain times. You have to eat in front of other people and when I’m unwell this can be really hard for me. There is little privacy on a psychiatric ward. The bedroom I stayed in on one ward didn’t have any curtains. There’s only a small privacy curtain between your bedroom and wet room for showering and using the toilet. Staff look through the window every fifteen minutes or every hour to do observations and can walk into your room at any time.
I’ve been using self- injury for nearly twenty years, it’s something I do to manage very difficult feelings. Psychiatric hospitals have a zero-tolerance approach to self-injury. Whilst I was detained, I didn’t have access to any thing sharp at all, so I started banging my face against furniture and tying cables and pieces of clothing around my neck. This is called ligaturing. Before the admission last year, I’d never used a ligature, it was something that I started doing in hospital. The environment was so chaotic, I’d lost my home, and at times I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. When I’m having a psychotic break, I lose touch with reality completely. I thought I had a baby who had died, I thought for a while that I had killed my own children. On a number of occasions, I thought I was dead, I thought I was in a coma, I thought the staff were imposters or rapists and I’d been hypnotised to think they were NHS staff. I didn’t speak to my Mum for months and I didn’t let the hospital talk to her because I thought she was lying to me and she was an actor in a television film programme and not my Mum. I thought I was in a virtual reality computer simulation that I couldn’t get out of. I still experience some of these delusions and I’m still often confused about what’s real.
After months waiting for housing to come through, living on the ward in this chaotic environment I couldn’t see a way out and I wanted to be dead. I absolutely believe that the psychiatric ward environment contributed to why I felt suicidal. Here’s an extract from my medical notes from 17/07/2020 where a Consultant Psychiatrist describes that hospital is not helping me and I have become more unwell since being admitted.
Here’s an email from the hospital to the local council housing officer dated the 26th June saying that I no longer require an inpatient stay.
Despite this I was detained in hospital until the 20th August 2020.
Once you’ve used a ligature in a psychiatric setting, you’re not allowed to go outside for 24 hours. Because I wasn’t allowed outside, I became more agitated and distressed, so I then tried to kill myself more frequently. At one point I was trying to kill myself three or four times a day and each time the staff would run in and physically hold me down and cut the ligature off. I started stealing metal cutlery from the dining room and breaking it and cutting my own face with the sharp edges. I only had a handful of sessions of actual psychotherapy in hospital because the ward kept saying I was going to be discharged, then housing would fall through and I’d have to stay for longer. I was told I would be referred for talking therapy in the community, instead of psychological interventions I was regularly prescribed benzodiazepines. These medications make you feel numb and spaced out and are very addictive. They’re only supposed to be prescribed for a short time, but I was given benzodiazepines for five months. When I left hospital, I had to go through a supervised drug withdrawal to come off them. After I left hospital it took six months before my referral for psychological therapy came through and I was able to speak with a psychologist regularly in the community.
As is the case with many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, night-time can be a vivid and scary time. On the psych ward at night, you’re not allowed to be in the main communal areas; the garden, the art room, and the television lounge are locked at midnight until 7 am. On some wards you can sit in the dining room but in my experience most hospitals will tell you to go to your room at night. The corridor lights are turned down off and you’re left on your own. Staff come around every hour to shine a torch light through the window and write down what you’re doing. This might be done every fifteen minutes depending on how closely the ward are monitoring you. This would be confusing and distressing even if I had not been psychotic but when I’ve lost touch with reality it’s terrifying. During the period I was most unwell in hospital last year I was having vivid flashbacks about being raped as a child. These flashbacks didn’t feel like memories they were visceral and physical, and it felt like it was happening to me in that moment. If you’re distressed or overwhelmed on a psych ward at night, you can either stay in your room and try to manage on your own or, if you are on a ward where staff are willing to spend time with patients, you might be able to play cards together or do some colouring in the dining room. If you’re lucky the nurse in charge will be free to talk with you but they are often very busy and at night they cover more than one ward. On some wards I’ve been on staff sit in the office all night and only come out if the alarm sounds. On this kind of ward if you ask for help or to talk to someone staff will tell you to go to your room or offer you extra medication to sedate you.
If you’re having a difficult time on the ward during the night and you decide to ask for help, the confusing and difficult thing is, the staff you’re asking for help may well be people who have physically restrained you that day, or earlier in the week or earlier in the month. They might have, as ‘an act of care’ held you down and pulled down your trousers and given you an injection in your backside that makes you go to sleep and leaves you sedated and dribbling. Two or three of them might have, as a group, put their hands on your arms and your back and pushed you down a corridor to a room with a single blue matt on the floor locked you inside, left you there on your own, weeping and crying and screaming. Here’s an extract from my medical notes where staff describe an incident where they locked me in the seclusion room for screaming whilst I was experiencing flash backs of historic child abuse.
When this happened, staff on the ward weren’t interested in thinking about what might make a human being so frightened that they screamed in this way, they just kept telling me to be quiet and that my distress was making other patients angry and upset. They didn’t have the training or skills to provide support around the vivid flashbacks of sexual violence that I was experiencing that are common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than one staff member raised their voices and repeatedly told me to calm down and go to my room. In this kind of scenario, if you’re distressed on an acute ward and the staff attempts at ‘de-escalation’ don’t work, they will use physical restraint on you to forcibly inject you with sedating medication. Two or three or four or five staff members will restrain you (depending on if you try to get away, over the years in different environments I’ve learned, it’s useless to struggle you’re more likely to wake up bruised or physically injured). Two staff members will take you by the arms, a staff member on each side, one hand under each elbow. If necessary, another will put their hands on your back and push you from behind to the ward seclusion room. If you’re still distressed or you won’t accept medication, they will push you down on to a blue plastic matt on to your front in what is called a prone restraint. Two members of staff pin your legs and arms to the matt. Whilst you are pressed face down on to the plastic matt another staff member will reach around from behind put their hands underneath you and undo your trousers or pull down your tights and pants and inject you in the backside. The first time I was physically restrained I was put into a face down prone restraint. I was psychotic and I screamed and fought because it recreated entirely my experiences of being sexually assaulted. I thought all five members of staff in the room were going to take turns raping me. Once they have injected you, the staff abruptly leave, locking you in the room alone, confused and sobbing and ashamed and frightened with your clothing around your knees and your genitals exposed.
I have vivid memories of the seclusion room and what it felt like to be locked in there after such a brutal encounter. The haze of the medication, the desperate rearranging of clothing, the shock and shame and confusion, the staff staring at you through the small observation window.
After some time has passed, when the medication has kicked in and you’re sedated they abruptly let you back out on to the ward again. It might seem like the worst thing has already happened but out of all of this, the thing which for me is most damaging and confusing occurs next. The staff pretend nothing has happened. They pretend as if they haven’t just enacted a terrifying act of physical violence on you. In my experience they are often particularly nice and caring and gentle with you. They might ask if you are hungry or if you want to sit in the garden or join in with a game of cards.
To go from violent restraint and physical intervention, to smiling and pretending nothing has happened, is toxic, confusing, and incredibly damaging. For me, and for many people who have experienced abuse, this behaviour exactly re-enacts what it is like to be abused. The relationship I have with psychiatric services has hugely recreated and echoed the pattern of abuse I was subject to as a child. One minute someone is caring and attentive the next they are trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do, the next moment they are physically holding you down. It is retraumatising and it is abusive.
Psychiatric wards in the UK are not safe places for vulnerable people. When I was psychotic, I was terrified of other people, particularly male staff and patients. I was desperate to run away from them and escape. I injured myself by accident numerous times attempting to climb out of windows or over fences. Four or five times I fell off the ward garden 8ft fence while trying to climb it. Here are extracts from my medical notes where staff members describe me repeatedly climbing the fence and falling from it.
Whilst out on escorted leave I ran away and climbed over a fence into a hospital maintenance area. There was an open shipping container used for storing damaged items. In the shipping container was an old lawnmower, glass panes, broken furniture and disused fire extinguishers and batteries. I hid there until three ward staff came to take me back to the ward. I ran away to the shipping container twice and hid there amongst all the broken items. After this incident my friends were worried, I would go to the shipping container again and hurt myself on the hazardous objects there. When they asked staff why the area was accessible, the ward staff said they knew the open shipping container was a risk, but it would be most effective if I could put in a formal complaint myself about how dangerous it was, because they had reported it and the maintenance company in charge of the hospital site didn’t do anything about it. I was told by staff that a patient from a different ward had also climbed the fence and gained access to this maintenance area. I don’t know what happened to the other patient. I kept trying to escape and go back there because I thought it was a challenge by the people who set up the secret television project that films me to give me the option to kill myself live on television if I wanted to.
Here’s the incident report that describes what happened from the staff’s perspective.
Whilst I was detained, I was sat in the garden on a sunny day and a male patient exposed his penis at me. On the same day a different male patient masturbated in front of me. Here’s an extract from my medical notes that describes what happened.
When this happened, I had a non-epileptic attack which is a trauma response to an overwhelming scenario. Your body becomes paralysed, and you fall on the floor and have what looks very much like an epileptic seizure. After I came around from the seizure, I was so terrified I went back to my bedroom and I was so dissociated and frightened that I wet myself. The staff offered that the police could come in to take a statement. When I was a child the man who sexually abused me was a police officer. I grew up in a house where there was domestic abuse and coercive control, and the person who did this was a police officer. For me now, the police are not safe. When the police come to my house or are involved in my care it’s terrifying.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault in inpatient settings are common, during the admissions I’ve had over the years I’ve seen numerous instances of harassment and assault. It’s something that services just do not want to talk about. Last year after the male patient exposed himself to me, I did talk with two female police officers who visited the unit, but I didn’t want to press charges. From my perspective it wasn’t the other patients’ fault, they were also detained under section, it was the hospital that let us both down by not assessing risk correctly and leaving us unobserved in the garden without staff present.
In my medical notes staff recorded a number of occasions when other service users sexually harassed me. Here’s an extract from my medical notes where a staff member documents an incident of sexual harassment on the ward from a different male patient.
The male patient who exposed himself was transferred but nothing was done about sexual harassment on the ward. After this incident I was transferred to an all female ward at Callington Road Hospital. Callington Road is a campus hospital with both male and female wards on the same site. On one occasion I was sat in the ward garden and the male patient who had masturbated in front of me walked past whilst out on escorted leave. He shouted at me and I had a panic attack and had to be supported by staff and take sedating medication. After this I was afraid to sit in the garden. The staff did not put in place measures to ensure I was kept safe from having to engage with the patients involved in these incidents and they didn’t understand this was linked to why I kept trying to run away from the hospital.
I was in the care of the hospital and it was their responsibility to protect me from sexual violence, harassment and assault. They utterly failed in that responsibility.
At the end of August last year, after nearly five months of psychiatric hospital admissions, a bed became available at Link House in Bristol. Link House is a specialist women’s crisis house run by the organisation Missing Link. They use a trauma informed and human rights-based approach to care. I was discharged from hospital very suddenly. I arrived at Link House alone on a Friday evening in a taxi straight from the psych ward. I was very frightened and paranoid. I didn’t trust anyone; I was confused about what was real and I was very traumatised by all the things that had happened to me whilst I was detained. The first evening I was there I heard another person who was staying in the house asking a support worker for some time to talk and I remember hearing the staff member say, ‘We have talked with you a lot already today’. I remember thinking, ‘these people are busy too, this is going to be just like hospital’. Then the support worker said to the person ‘I’m worried that you might be feeling a bit tired, I’m happy to talk with you some more but I wondered if you felt like watching a film together and sitting in the lounge with me whilst I do some sewing?’ I heard this and just thought, what is this place? Who are these people who have time to talk with you for so long and sit and watch films with you? It was such a different approach.
Link House is a space designed specifically for women, by women and this was so helpful for me in feeling safe, especially when I was having panic attacks and flashbacks and confused about what was real and who people were. The space just looks and feels like a home. Here’s a photo of the living room at Link House, it really demonstrates the difference in the environment.
The atmosphere was safe, welcoming and friendly, it was so quiet and calm. The way it was decorated, it felt like you were staying in a warm, caring household. Hung on the walls and in the kitchen were small pieces of arts and crafts made by other women who had stayed there. I was feeling very fragile and lonely, and this artwork made me think of other survivors who had spent time at Link House when they were struggling. Looking at the hand painted stones, and crochet decorations and paintings I felt connected to all the other women who had stayed there before me. I remember the Manager said to me, ‘The way we see it, we are coming into your home for two weeks, not the other way around and as staff we try and treat it like that’.
During my stay I was asked what I wanted to happen, and I was put at the centre of all the decisions about things that happened to me. I was supported with following up appointments with other agencies. For example, I was discharged from hospital without any benzodiazepine medication even though I’d been regularly prescribed it for five months, it’s very addictive and coming off it abruptly is dangerous. The first evening I arrived at Link House I checked the medication packet the ward had given me and found they hadn’t prescribed any lorazepam. Things were still very chaotic for me, it was the first night out of hospital, I was homeless, I was waiting for a place at a women’s hostel, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was very frightened, and I was still having flash backs and non-epileptic seizures. The support worker at Link House sat with me on the evening I arrived whilst I phoned the ward to tell them I’d been discharged without any emergency medication. The ward said it wasn’t their responsibility to prescribe medication to take home that wasn’t on repeat prescription and we should phone the Bristol Crisis Team. We phoned the Crisis Team who said it was nothing to do with them because I wasn’t under their care and I should contact my GP. We then phoned my GP, but the surgery was closed because it was the weekend. It was a difficult weekend without any extra medication. When I came down for breakfast on Monday I was agitated and asked if the support worker could call the GP again and it turned out she had already contacted my doctor whilst I was asleep and followed up about the prescription.
At Link House you have access to art and craft activities, puzzles, games and films 24/7, so if you’re not sleeping you’ve got something to do. One night when I couldn’t sleep, I tie-dyed a dress with a support worker who was working the night shift. It was so lovely, and that dress is still very special to me.
During my stay I could come and go any time before 10pm. I was asked to let staff know that I was going out and when I was going to be back. If I was having a difficult time while I was out and about, I could call Link House any time and a member of staff would support me on the phone. I didn’t run away once; I came back on time and I felt safe staying there.
Link House had a completely different approach to self-injury. When I first arrived, I was asked to keep medication and anything that could be used to self-injure in metal locked boxes in my bedroom. I could keep the keys to those boxes myself or leave them with the support worker. If I chose to hand the keys in to the Link House staff, I could ask for them any time of the day or night and they would offer to speak with me about what I was feeling but they wouldn’t refuse access to the contents of the boxes. This put me in control of my own body again. In hospital I was stealing scissors from the art room to hurt myself, hitting my head on the walls, pouring boiling water on my arms. At Link House I kept the keys to the sharps box myself. In the two weeks I was there I had access to glass and kitchen knives, and I didn’t cut myself once. Using lock boxes is something that I’ve continued to do. Now in my own home, I keep razors and scissors, things that I might use to self-injure, locked away so there’s a little bit of time and distance there if I feel like using self-injury.
From my first evening at Link House, the staff were clear and honest about what support they could provide. People are only allowed to stay there for two weeks so we made a plan together about how I wanted to use my time. That plan was built around how I was feeling and what I wanted to happen next. They treated me like a person not a patient. There were no alarms there and they didn’t restrain me or ever touch me. It felt safe and caring and peaceful.
During my stay at Link House, I was referred to an organisation called Safelink to receive support from an Independent Sexual Violence Advocate so I could be supported to talk with the police about being abused as a child. This was the first time I had ever talked about it. They created a safe space where I could start to understand what had happened to me and make sense of my fragmented memories. My Sexual Violence Advocate supported me to contact the police.
My support worker at Link House also referred me to Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service (SARSAS) for specialist support. Now I have a support worker to help build my confidence and set goals to help me move on with my life.
At Link House I was given information about local phonelines and email support services like Self Injury Support UK, the SARSAS support service and Womankind that anyone can access for free. These are small organisations that receive little or no government funding and are mostly run by trained volunteers. I can’t describe how helpful this type of specialist support has been for me, being able to talk to people who really understand the impact of sexual violence and know how to compassionately support people who use self-injury and have flashbacks and dissociative seizures. Over the past year since I left Link House, I’ve contacted these organisations many times and talked to them about things I’ve never told anyone, even my closest friends. They understand why I don’t go outside after dark and make space for me to say anything I need to. They provide non -judgemental support and there aren’t limits on how often I can call or email them. In the five months I was in hospital I wasn’t referred to any external support to prepare me for when I returned to the community. Many times, during my time in hospital, I was left sobbing on the floor alone or told I was making too much noise and it was distressing for other people. I remember once a staff member said to me ‘If you’re going to scream, you need to go to your room and do it, it’s upsetting for other people’. In hospital I felt abandoned and that it would be better if I was dead. I had no hope, and I did not think I would ever feel safe again. I spent two weeks in Link House and moved on feeling like I wasn’t alone and there were places to turn to and people who wanted to help me.
Why is human rights-based mental health care important?
As a person who’s been in secondary psychiatric services for sixteen years and had numerous hospital admission, both voluntary and detained, whether we talk about ‘trauma informed care’ or ‘person-centred care’, I’m not sure how much that matters to me anymore. There are thousands of other survivors like me, who have been using services for a very long time and been harmed by psychiatric care. I’ve seen many ideas and trends come and go within the NHS, cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavioural therapy, group psychotherapy, apps, for many years mindfulness was heralded as the magical cure, now it’s coproduction and trauma informed care. I think we need to talk more about the fact that mental illness is intimately political. Who you are in society hugely impacts your chances of experiencing mental illness, the way in which you are treated, and the kind of care you have access to, when you’re experiencing a mental health crisis.
In the UK being Black puts you more at risk of being sectioned and if you’re a Black person who is detained you are then more likely to be restrained during that admission. Trans people are being misgendered by services and detained in unsafe and harmful environments. LGBTQIA+ people are being told by psychiatrists that their sexuality reflects an unstable sense of self and their personalities are disorders. People are being discharged from psychiatric hospital into homeless hostels, those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction are being refused access to community mental health services. People with autism and learning disabilities are put in seclusion for years with no access to outside spaces. Children are being locked up in units and physically restrained numerous times a day. Sexual abuse survivors are being arrested for phoning 999 to access support when they’re suicidal. I’m a middle-class cis white woman, I move through the world with a lot of privilege, the way I experience mental health services is very different because of this. The things that I’m talking about are partly issues of funding and staffing, and training, but they’re entirely human rights issues. And they’re happening right now up and down the country. The way we treat people who are vulnerable and from marginalised groups reflects on all of us. We desperately need a human rights approach to mental health care.
I think the most important thing in this period of time, when big organisations are becoming interested in changing their approaches and the World Health Organisation are actively highlighting human rights abuses in psychiatric settings, is that people using services are involved in making decisions about how services are shaped. People who experience mental health illness have been talking, tweeting, blogging, protesting, writing books, making art, about the harm done by psychiatric services, for years. In 1620 patients of Bethlem Hospital wrote a letter to the House of Lords about abuse at Bethlem called “Petition of the Poor Distracted People in the House of Bedlam (concerned with conditions for inmates)”. We have been organising and campaigning and volunteering and supporting each other for a very long time. When it comes to making decisions about funding and approaches, we are ignored or only involved as a token gesture. The National Survivor User Network regularly raises human rights issues in mental health care. The critical theorist and activist collective, Recovery in the Bin have been highlighting the damage the current system causes and the politics of mental health care for years. Last year Mad Covid, who are an intersectional mental health community for survivor and service-user led projects, created recommendations for mental health services during Covid-19. Recently a group of people experiencing mental illness, survivors and activists came together as part of the Stop SIM coalition to expose the scandal of police arresting people in mental health crisis and denying them access to care. It was survivors who gathered evidence that showed that fraudulent data had been used to obtain funding from the NHS for the SIM project. The scandal was recently featured on the front page of a national newspaper. Arresting people and imprisoning them for contacting 999 is a breach of their human rights. People accessing mental health care have been trying to say how damaging and broken the current system is for decades but until powerful people start listening and are prepared to have difficult conversations and hear some really challenging and unpleasant truths nothing will change.
Aside from my mental illness, aside from my experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse, I’m a human being and I have fundamental human rights. I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to be educated and involved in protecting human rights. I’m a survivor of sexual violence but I’m also a daughter and a sister and a friend. I’d ask anyone reading this to think about what kind of care they would want for their sister or their brother, their daughter or son, their partner or friend if this happened to them. Link House covers a geographical region of South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and Bath which is a huge amount of people. It only has space for ten women to stay at any one time. I was incredibly lucky to be able to go there.
After Link House
After staying for two weeks at Link House I was sent to a women’s homeless hostel. Friends of mine came to visit me there and immediately offered that I come and live with them. I was supported by them for a few months, they sat with me late into the night, cooked meals for me, comforted me, supported me, and reminded me that I deserved to be cared for, I was worth loving and that I wanted to be alive. Now I live in a private house share, and having a safe, quiet place to live has been so essential to things becoming more stable for me. I speak with an art therapist on the NHS once a week who works as part of the complex psychological interventions team. I’m a member of the Studio Upstairs therapeutic art community in Bristol and I go there one day a week to paint. Recently, for my birthday I got an annual pass for the Bristol Aquarium. I like going there and watching the fish, I think I feel connected to them because they belong in the sea but are trapped behind glass. I joined a women’s only kick boxing class and I train there twice a week. I find punching things helps. I have a specialist support worker through the charity SARSAS and they’re supporting me increasing my confidence when I’m out on my own. I’m on the waiting list for a befriending service with them as well. I have a lot of sadness and at times feel overwhelmed about all the things that have happened over the last fourteen months. I live with a sense of terror about ever having to go back into psychiatric hospital again and I still have nightmares about it. The more I speak and write about it, the more I connect with other survivors and people who are using the mental health system, and the more I see that my story is one of thousands of people who have experienced sexual violence and then been hurt and harmed by psychiatric services. For me, being able to go to Link House in Bristol was an experience of care that really changed everything. We desperately need to fund more places like it.
Other things I want to say
For anyone in NHS leadership, executive board members, senior managers reading this I want to say to you- please stop locking up survivors and holding us down, please stop diagnosing us with disordered personalities. Please stop hurting us. We are desperately trying to manage the devasting impact of trauma and mental illness. People are dying because of a lack of support and access to care. Listen to specialist charities and grassroots organisations, listen to survivors about what works for us. Work with us to create safe places where we can heal and try to move on with our lives.
For anyone in Government who might be reading this I want to say to you: I’m tired of staying up at night trying to work out why no one is being held accountable for acts of sexual violence and why the system is so broken. I’m tired of feeling ashamed about what was done to me. It is you who should feel ashamed. For years you have utterly failed thousands of survivors of sexual violence by creating systems that allow rapists to walk free. You have failed us, and history will judge you for it.
For anyone reading this who has experienced sexual violence I want to say to you. I believe you. I stand with you. What happened to you was not your fault. You deserve care and support. We all deserve to live in a society that feels safe.
By Jennifer Reese
Missing Link: https://missinglinkhousing.co.uk
Self Injury Support UK: https://www.selfinjurysupport.org.uk
Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Service (SARSAS): https://www.sarsas.org.uk
Womankind Bristol: https://www.womankindbristol.org.uk
Recovery in the Bin: https://recoveryinthebin.org
Mad Covid: https://madcovid.wordpress.com
Mad Covid – recommendations for mental health services: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Q4M5meTesDBLlDs12m_eV4JILtG4dSA2/view
Stop Sim Coalition: https://stopsim.co.uk/
Studio Upstairs: https://www.studioupstairs.org.uk