The Mental Health Act: Not perfect and in need of reform

21/01/2021

Last week the government announced plans to update and modernise the Mental Health Act. This signals significant change to the act for the first time in 30 years. In this blog, Ashley who is 23 years old and was diagnosed with psychosis three years ago, discusses her experiences of being detained under the Mental Health Act and what changes she would like to see.

In 2015, a couple of years before I was diagnosed, I had gone to university to study Psychology.

While it began as a positive experience, due to my interest in the course, my mental health quickly deteriorated following a traumatic experience. This experience left me feeling isolated and frightened for the future, so I took some time off to focus on my recovery. I deferred my year, and started on a clean slate.

The second time around started off quite well. I’d transferred to a university closer to home, and I felt much more comfortable. I began my uni life and tried to get as involved as I could. However, between studying for exams, holding down a job, and volunteering, I began to feel very stressed, and I lost a lot of sleep.  

I remember things started to feel bizarre the day before my exams. I was at home and I felt very uneasy. I thought that there were people controlling my parents’ minds. My delusions seemed so real, but came on very suddenly. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone as I couldn’t trust them with such alarming thoughts.

That night, I did not sleep... at all. I had unusually large bursts of energy and I was screaming. Eventually, my family called the ambulance and I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and placed on a psychiatric ward against my will. I was frightened, and I had no idea what was happening to me. In my head, psychiatric wards were places where you were injected with medicine and had no freedom. 

"While I was in hospital, I experienced a whole range of emotions. I was lost, helpless, frightened, and perplexed. I was away from my family in an unfamiliar environment, and receiving regular injections. It felt like a living nightmare, but the hospital staff tried to make me feel comfortable."

Slowly but surely, I began to come back to reality. I was surrounded by staff that were all kind and caring, and it felt as though they genuinely desired to see me recover. It was with their support that I came to comprehend that I was unwell, and that my delusions weren’t real.

While the support that I received helped me to begin my recovery, I was never really involved in my care during those first stages. While my parents were told about my medication, I was rarely informed about what I was on, or why. I was offered antipsychotic medication, and that was the end of the discussion. It wasn’t until I’d been discharged and started attending a rehabilitation centre that I began to feel more involved in the decision making.

After I left the hospital, I started to focus on my recovery. My family provided me with so much support during this time, as did my PATH team. The PATH team taught me how to manage nightmares, notice the triggers for psychosis, and talk to them about anything. On top of this, I took steps to improve my physical health. I joined a walking club with my mum, started to eat more healthily, and focussed on getting better sleep. I also prioritised my wellbeing, immersing myself in music, and spent more time in prayer.

While my mental health was steadily improving, it wasn’t plain sailing. My university life had been too disrupted, and I received almost no support from them. On top of this, Student Finance sent me a letter to say that they could no longer fund my course, and that they expected repayment. I was left feeling isolated and downhearted, and it was clear that my dreams of returning to university were shattered.

My day to day relationship with psychosis has evolved over time. At the start, I was managing hallucinations on a regular basis. I managed my hallucinations by using grounding techniques. For example, I would say a positive affirmation that would shift my mind to the phrase, rather than the voice in my mind. I would often quote my favourite Bible promises as they would bring me peace. In time, the hallucinations have changed into occasional (but very vivid) nightmares. While scary, I’ve learned to reduce the impact that they have on me through therapy.

From therapy, I learnt how to use different techniques to manage my nightmares; re-scripting the narrative of a dream (The Dream Completion Technique), talking about the dreams, and using essential oils in the room I sleep in.

I used to associate being sectioned with thoughts of self-pity, but I’ve come to realise how important it was to my recovery and restoration. Being sectioned has helped me to realise that I don’t have to give in to the voices and let them control me.

That said, the Mental Health Act is not perfect. The old Act wasn’t completely person-centred as service users weren’t always given a choice in what type of care they receive. However, it’s good to see it being reformed.

When I was detained, the lack of a person-centred, holistic approach was quickly apparent to me. There will always be people that need to stay in hospital for their mental illness, but those people should have more of a say over their treatment, and be given more choice about how they spend time on the wards.

More than anything, I try to find the positives where I can. Experiencing psychosis can be scary, especially early on, but I believe that good things can come out of awful situations. It can seem difficult at first, but diagnosis isn’t the end of the story. What I went through was horrible, but it’s since enabled me to help others in a similar position.

Ashley is a campaigner and media volunteer for Rethink Mental Illness. Her experiences while detained under the Mental Health Act have been highlighted by BBC ouch and she regularly posts about her faith and her mental health campaigning via @HeRestoresMe.

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