Being sectioned at 18: Degrading and life-saving


Most people remember their significant birthdays as a time of fun and enjoyment – but for actress & writer Juliette Burton, looking back on her 18th birthday brings back vivid memories of being detained under the Mental Health Act. As part of our #actformentalhealth campaign, Juliette Burton took time out from her award winning Butterfly Effect tour to write about her experiences.

What were you doing when you were 17 about to turn 18? Partying? Smoking and drinking? Working? Starting a family? Looking round university? Gap year? I was sectioned under the mental health act.

Don’t worry, I’ve been making up for it by partying ever since.

Lots of people know what it’s like to have a hangover on your 18th birthday. But nobody I’ve ever met knows what it’s like to be sectioned. I can tell you what it was like for me.

Degrading. And life-saving.

It’s difficult to convey the gratitude I sincerely hold for the services I was provided. The treatment I eventually received having been sectioned was revolutionary in my personal journey. That particular hospital stint eventually led to a turning point for me. Upon leaving that clinic, for the first time since being diagnosed I wanted to get better. For that I’ll be forever grateful. 

But the lack of dignity and respect I was treated to when I was sectioned was stressful. Looking back, it is likely that this stress was a partial cause of the psychosis that I experienced following being sectioned. Another factor was my very low body weight and shock to the system – I’d been running on adrenalin for so long. And yes, I was sectioned back in 2002 so my memory is hazy, and yes I wasn’t well at the time so I’m sure that colours my recollection.

However, the details I do remember I recall vividly. And they still don’t sit right. Particularly as I know that legislation hasn’t changed much in those last 16 years. Hell, it hasn’t changed much in the last 35 years.

Juliette Burton

It’s 35 years since the Mental Health Act was introduced and little has changed ever since.  Those being ‘sectioned’ have very little information given to them – and in some cases their rights and what is happening to them is not explained.  Care under the Act can be patchy and open to individual interpretation. A worrying thought for anyone going through a mental health crisis.

I remember being put on bed rest. I remember my phone being taken from me. My music. My tweezers. My scissors.

I remember being told I couldn’t leave my bed. I was told to use a wheelchair to the en-suite bathroom when I needed to pee. I was supervised 24 hours a day. Even when peeing. The amount of times I used a toothbrush was limited. I wasn’t allowed to wash for days. Every minute of every day I was observed. I could not be alone. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room. A woman sat with me in my bedroom reading or knitting or chatting.

Looking back, I can guess at why these things were happening. But at the time it wasn’t fully explained. I felt cut off, unanswered, isolated and terribly alone. I felt undignified.

Going from being obsessed with my looks, losing weight, being strong, so strong, superhuman – so the anorexia minx lied to me whispering sweet nothings into my ear – to being pushed so far to the brink of self-disgust, imagine not washing for days on end, your hair  is greasy and unwashed, and on top of all that your eyebrows are becoming bushy and unneat when your mind is obsessed with neatness.  It’s your safety, your security

I asked a nurse one day why my tweezers were taken from me. She laughed at me and said “Why do you think?”  I still, to this day, do not know for sure.

I hypothesize it must be because it was a potential weapon for self-harm. But I didn’t have a history of self-harm. Not with tweezers. With starving myself, sure. But not with toiletries from Boots.

All these unanswered questions floated around in my mind every day. It was confusing, constraining, discombobulating. Why would nobody explain what was going on?

Then one day it occurred to me: it must be a test. The powers that be must know all the answers and they’re wanting me to figure it out. There’s a secret coded message I’m meant to be picking up on and it’s a game. I’ve meant to solve it and then I’ll be released from this prison.

I started searching for, and finding, messages in the newspapers I was sent daily. I started searching for, and hearing, messages in what I heard on the radio. I started hearing messages in the voices I was hearing but no one else seemed to acknowledge. I started receiving messages from nurses on the ward that apparently no one else could see or hear.

I started hallucinating. 

For three weeks, day and night, I had no idea where I physically was. I saw aliens and angels, I time-travelled, my mind couldn’t cope with the stress I had been put under. 

For three months I floated back and forth between hallucinating and paranoid and reality. Or what others perceived of as reality.

Being sectioned led me to the truly classic idea of insanity. Surely the real insanity is that all of that was preventable in the first place? The true madness is how little respect people in the position I was in are afforded.

Dignity is a human right, no matter your mental state. I had value as an individual even more so in that darkest moment because that was a defining moment of a young 17 year old girl’s life. That 17 year old me was taught how to think of herself in that place. 

Was she treated with esteem and helped through it with reverence? Was she taught to respect herself even when her illness had tried to kill her? Or was she taught she was of no value? Put under unnecessary stress? Was her own mind forced to find answers because she wasn’t talked to like the human being she still was?

I met a girl after one of my shows last weekend. She had been sectioned 3 times. She was a stunningly beautiful soul, in every sense of that word. She has her whole life ahead of her. But I saw that awkward pain. The pain that was totally avoidable. The pain of knowing she was “less than”, lacking in value. She’d been treated, like I had, like I was ostracised from society. No longer worthwhile. No longer someone who could contribute to a fuller world. Yet this young woman was eloquent, empathetic, intelligent, caring and giving. She has a job interview today as I write this.

I told her how she needed to hold her head high and tell the interviewer that her mental illness was not a weakness, it was a strength. That being sectioned afforded her true insight into what it means to be human and the value of respect. Because when you’re treated like you’re nothing, you understand what it’s like to be truly side-lined.

Value is in perception. At a time when we’re so willing to say mental illness is understandable and accepted and supported why are we not changing our legislation to reflect it as such?

I hope that young woman gets the job. She has a bright future, I just hope she knows it.

My birthday is next week. Another year passes. Another year since I was 17 and sectioned. Maybe this year I can see the change not only in me but in the world around me which we are finally demanding: the mentally unwell are still of value if not of more value. In our darkest moments, that’s the time we could be thrown to the wayside. That’s the time when respect is called for the most.

Juliette Burton is an award winning writer, actress and performer.  Find out more by visiting her website or follow her on twitter.

Photograph of Juliette Burton credited to Steve Ullathorne.