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Mental health matters - let's have fair funding


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There is a sickening, suffocating atmosphere in the A&E department of Southampton General Hospital. People sitting waiting are oblivious to the fear drenching me in tears and sweat, unless they can smell it.

Perhaps it is true that you should not believe everything you think. But here, in the grips of psychosis, the rules of reality do not apply any more and I am filled with despair at the thoughts cantering through my head. I have no choice but to take myself to the safest place possible as a torrent of voices - I've had them for days, and still to this day - tell me they are going to kill, have already killed. There is nowhere to hide or escape. They are omnipotent, omniscient and merciless.

That is not to say there was want of trying to escape. Indeed, hospital security had to restrain me and lift me back to bed as I tried to struggle my way off the ward, jump in to a taxi and speed off in to the night with no money or plans for looking after myself. On the one hand, I was in one of the safest places to be during a crisis. The voices though were vividly, indelibly real. They were upstairs. And coming to get me. Horribly. At any moment. The door to the ward was unlocked. I felt horribly exposed. My prospects are not looking good at this point.

I am having a crisis, the culmination of a long-standing and ongoing episode of schizoaffective disorder. It is not like the movies. Until it touched my life I uncritically accepted cold representations of people with mental disorder as demonic and violent. In truth, in real life, episodes are opposite: I am, considering my condition, weirdly lucid, and pose no danger to anyone except myself. It is different for everyone. Nuance, not stereotypes.

The longer I am there the more I start to trust the nurse, and accept her little blue medication, which I hadn't been taking. I feared medication was a ploy to weaken me. I try hard to forget and dismiss the morphing, kaleidoscopic horror of voices telling me my fate, to forget about how I have fallen off the edge and in to the void, seemingly irretrievably.

I swallow the tablet and fall asleep. I am serene. I have been so long without rest now I can't remember how many days have melted by. I might as well be going to space and wrestling wildebeeste on Saturn. I have never experienced anything so bizarre and frightening and surreal. I'd never hit this point. People I knew had, but I didn't think it would ever happen to me.

Consciousness pools in at the shores of my mind and I wake up. Disembodied voices bang at the doors of my eardrums again. At this point it is confirmed I am waiting to be moved to a psychiatric ward, and I am moved to a side room to stop disturbing other patients with my restless pacing and attempts to escape. I don't know how long I am going to be here. The voices keep saying it will be 15 minutes till my execution. I hide behind a chair in case my assailants peer through the glass panel looking for me. Security are kindly waiting outside to check I don't try to run off again. Each heart beat is like a gong. Every breath gets shallower. Each time I move my eyes a shadow leaps, furniture morphs, everything warps.

Soon an ambulance arrives, an old, black ambulance like one you might see trundling through a village in a period drama. Despite the reassuring presence of the driver I still feel scared, as if I am racing against time to make it to in to the ambulance, as if my nemesis might jump out at the last moment and deal the blow I've been so fitfully anticipating. I wonder if they will follow me to the next ward. After a disorienting journey we pull in, the door is opened, and I am helped in to the lobby.

It all seems very strange during my first few nights. The hallucinations get decidedly worse. I try, in vain, to escape the ward because I fear there are people living in the vents above my room. The doctor interviews me and I am sectioned. In a short space of time I have gone from being a student looking out to the world with a spark in the heart to a quivering, debilitated wreck incapable of being in the outside world.

The nurses regularly check on me, every 15 minutes. They come in to talk, but I can't think of what to say. Dreaming and wake have become one seamless whole; it is impossible to tell what is being created in my subconscious and what is really there. My dreams feel like reality and reality a delusion.

Over the days and weeks, the hallucinations lose their power. I teach myself to hear the voices reading to me, instead of accepting what they try to say. Occasionally bad images flutter through my mind, but they burn up quickly in wispers. I start to wash and eat again and slowly start to leave my room.

A nurse called Efrim plays guitar and teaches me a beautiful song. I practice it for 15 minutes every day. The melodies take my mind off the sound of voices and my happiness is palpable. For a while after playing a pleasant humming ripples in my head rather than threatening accusations.

Being sectioned was one of the hardest yet liberating things to happen to me. It made me realise I needed help. I felt unbelievably relieved to be returned back to the world in the semblance of my former self when I left the ward.

Various things make recovery a success. Psychiatric help, regular medication, therapies, self-awareness, having a support network. We are vulnerable to being dragged back in to an episode at any point. As a patient I was lucky enough to be able to heal and I was privileged to witness how the phenomenal dedication and care of nurses weaves a path of hope in to our lives.

But psychiatric wards can't just run off the kindness of strangers. In the UK mental health accounts for only 13% of NHS funding, despite accounting for around 24% of illness. Rethink say the number of people who get the support they need for depression is 25%. The problem is clear: there are not enough resources to provide adequate mental health support for everyone who needs it.

Professionals and patients have long campaigned for parity of esteem for physical and mental health. Psychiatric medicine is underfunded. People don't understand the basics of mental health first aid. And though there is more tolerance and understanding today, the way we think about mental illness is still ingrained with stimga.

Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants to create a society where this is no longer tolerated. He wants mental patients to have unrestrained access to medical care. He has proposed to increase budgets; challenge stigma; fund more staff; increase investment in children's mental health; improve mental health education; undertake a national study in to young people's mental health; support people out of work due to illnesses, and better understand the disparities in mental health between demographics, and I'm a believer.

That a 21st century state with pretensions to being an equal society can sustain such blatant inequalities in the provision of care is strange. It is holding us back; we have to move on. Hollow rhetoric from the government is pointless. This is a challenge to cuts; a call to compassion.

Going forward I am still scared, but with the resources provided by the NHS I have the tools I need to succeed in recovery. But without fair funding, it is obvious how far we have left to go.

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