"I was to be detained under the Mental Health Act. In a moment, my life collapsed."
Hannah’s struggles with mental illness began at an early age, and has since sent ripples across every aspect of her life. Having spent much of her life feeling that she had to suppress her emotions, she now works to help other people take care of their mental health.
I grew up in Wales as one of eight children. Whilst I was a largely positive child, there was a side of me that was very emotionally sensitive.
My troubles first started when I was ten. A friend of mine went swimming with her two brothers and drowned. I was given no support or comfort, I was simply informed of what had happened. Given my upbringing as an Evangelical Christian, I believed that my friend had gone to hell. I remember wishing that it was me that had died and she lived, because at least I’d go to heaven. My brain just couldn’t cope with this idea at such a young age.
Following this everything changed. Life didn’t become more difficult, it just took on a hard feeling. I didn’t come to terms with the loss of my friend, and my background meant that I was only able to express guilt. I was depressed, but I couldn’t tell my parents because to them mental illness didn’t exist. In their eyes, I had no reason to be sad, so I shouldn’t be. I ignored my feelings and kept them to myself. Things got worse when I was seventeen when a friend completed suicide, whilst another friend was murdered a year later.
I remained functional, but my mind was deteriorating. My inability to process emotions was having serious effects on me.
Following school, I attended the Royal School of Needlework. I really enjoyed myself there. Whilst we were a small group it really was like being part of a family. I think without realising it at the time, the family nature of the Royal School of Needlework helped me function even though my mental health was beginning to decline.
Even though I graduated and loved the people I worked with, I was unhappy. I wanted to help people in a more meaningful way, so I decided to make a change. After some deliberation, I applied and succeeded in getting in to Kings College to study nursing. During this period, I became two very different people. My professional self was succeeding with my studies and working hard to become a nurse. The other side of me would sit outside the chapel in the hospital every lunch, reading my bible and crying. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious that I was caring for other people to avoid caring for myself.
Following my graduation, I took up a position at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on their HIV ward. As a newly qualified nurse on the ward I was struck by just how supportive everyone was, both of each other and of the patients. I could see that the support was there, but my own inability to reach out meant that I couldn’t access it.
Not long after this I began to self-harm. I was having suicidal thoughts, and was exploring ways to end my life. My difficulty was how to do it in a way that my parents and the church would find “acceptable”. My upbringing had left me with the understanding that depression was not a proper illness, and it would be wrong to commit suicide because of it. My plan was to cause myself to become physically ill to the point where I could not be cured. I worked around needles on a ward surrounded by people with HIV. An illness like sepsis could easily be explained away as an unfortunate accident. It was my way of dying “naturally”, and would give me a reason to be depressed.
After 9 months working at the hospital my employers realised that I had not had an initial occupational health check-up. During a number of consultations, the doctor established that I was struggling with depression and referred me to my local mental health services to begin CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) with a psychologist. Whilst the psychologist was only trying to help, it had the opposite effect.
After a few weeks of seeing the psychologist we spoke about how I was feeling, and had I experienced any suicidal thoughts. When he asked me if I’d ever actually tried to commit suicide, I sat there in silence. I refused to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him the truth either. It was the first time that my actions had been brought to light. He asked that I come back the next day before my shift to see him and, without me knowing, also asked the emergency psychiatric service to review me the next day.
When I arrived the next morning, my nurses uniform was packed in my bag. I spent an hour answering questions from a senior doctor, conscious the entire time that I didn’t want to be late for work. When a new set of doctors came in and began to ask the same questions I became quite distressed. I was sat in a windowless room being stopped from going to work. Unbeknownst to me, I was undergoing a Mental Health Act assessment. I was more focussed on missing my shift than looking at what was going on around me. At the end of the interview they told me to call in sick, and that I was to be detained under the Mental Health Act.
In a moment, my life collapsed.
I was taken up to a mixed sex acute psychiatric ward and tried to make a private call to my manager, but I couldn’t stay in the room I was placed in because they needed it. I was moved to what was meant to be the woman’s lounge of the ward, but after a few minutes of being there a woman came in and asked me to leave her room (the CQC would later criticise the ward for allowing a lounge to be converted into a temporary room). With nowhere else to go, I sat in the corridor on the phone and spoke to my manager. I was completely alone, and there was no one to help, or even explain to me what was going on. I think because I was a nurse, the doctors that detained me assumed that I knew the process. It was another patient who finally realised that I’d never been through this before and told me where everything was.
When the nurses finally came to collect me, and give me a room, I felt like I had become no one. They took my name badge from my uniform, and I felt stripped of my identity.
From the first moment of entering the mental health service I no longer felt like a nurse but I tried to hold onto my identity as an embroiderer. Sadly, this was to be stripped from me too when after telling a nurse that I had worked on the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress she became concerned that I was deluded.
For the next five years I found myself in serious trouble. I continued to try and take my life. I was financially and sexually exploited by another patient, and was essentially stuck in a revolving door of acute mental care.
The turning point for me was when I was referred to the Cassel Hospital in Richmond. It was a Tier Four Therapeutic Community specialising in personality disorders. Their approach was immediately different to anything that I’d experienced before. The whole community is there to support your growth, and I was there to help support others as well as myself. It was a place that I could properly express emotion for the first time in my life.
A powerful moment occurred whilst I was sitting in the support group. I had recently self-harmed, and everyone there became quite frustrated. In the living room after the session, someone came up to me and hugged me. It immediately became clear that they weren’t angry because they didn’t like me, it was because they wanted me to get better.
What people often do not understand is that mental illness hits everyone. Of course, I was struggling with my own serious troubles, but my illness spread beyond me. My family, especially my parents, struggled to come to terms with having a mentally ill daughter. They didn’t have any experience of it before me, and were completely ignorant of what it meant. I don’t blame them for this. They were going through their own difficulties.
Since my diagnosis of emotionally unstable personality disorder I have been better able to manage my illness. My time at the Cassel hospital taught me to express my emotions properly. I still struggle though. My emotional development is several years behind what it should be, and I still find it difficult to process particularly strong emotions. I have not self-harmed in three years however, nor have I been admitted into an acute mental health unit.
My hope is to return to nursing eventually, but recently I have been presenting to student nurses to teach them how to look after their health. I have a passion for nursing and nurses, but I feel there is a lot of disillusionment among them. The mental health system needs compassion, but that begins with staff who are healthy too.
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