Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Shocking State of Mental Health Services in Haringey

St Ann’s Hospital in Haringey is the one remaining NHS hospital in the borough. There used to be six, but one by one they were sold off, to become, in a couple of the cases, luxury housing. A new polyclinic has opened in Crouch End, of course, and it is a very shiny building. So all is well, apparently.

Last week I visited a friend in St Ann’s, which is a mental health hospital. For those who have not visited the hospital, it is made up of many buildings, quite higgledy-piggledy in layout, with grassy areas and mature trees. There is at least one ‘pen’ where people who have been deemed mentally ill are allowed out to ‘exercise’ – or smoke – with no chance of escaping due to the high metal fences. The ‘pen’ is currently decorated with plastic flags, and Haringey ward, the assessment ward where my friend was staying, was festooned with more plastic bunting, each piece bearing the image of the Queen’s face.

The first thing that surprised me on my first visit was that the ward is mixed gender. Haven’t the Tories promised that they would do away with those? To add to that, the female toilets were often covered in faeces, meaning women had to use the gents’ toilets. When my friend reported the toilets, a nurse shouted at her, telling her it was disgusting, and it was not her job to sort out as she had paperwork to do.

I was there for only an hour on my first visit (before being chucked out as visiting time had finished), but in that time I saw two extremely aggressive incidents. Both involved very angry men, the second one being directed at a very vulnerable woman. The poor woman cowered whilst the man shouted directly into her face, threatening her at one point with a wooden chair. The woman then tried to get out of the room, clearly in distress, but was restrained by staff.

All the time I was there the television was blaring out in the corner. My friend also reports that at one point very loud music which she described as ‘trippy and disturbing’ was pumped out on speakers into the communal lounge at the request of one patient.

The friend who I was visiting has had mental health problems, on and off, for some years, and has of course become an expert in her own condition. On arriving at the hospital she was kept waiting on a chair in a waiting area all night long, whilst staff repeatedly told her that the doctor was coming soon. Doctors didn’t appear until the morning. Why? THERE ARE NO DOCTORS ON DUTY OVERNIGHT AT THE HOSPITAL. This is because of the cuts, and didn’t use to be the case. My friend was told she could go home and ‘take an anti-histamene’ to help her sleep. Here was someone in acute mental distress, worried about harming herself, and with a track-record of doing just that, and she was given this little care. But things were about to get worse.

She asked not to be given tranquillisers, as she has abused them in the past; “they are like Smarties to me” was how she put it. However, staff insisted that she take them. Finally she saw a doctor. A few days later she saw a psychiatrist who told her that she had a personality disorder, the unit didn’t help people like her, and that she needed to make changes herself. In short, her problems were all her own fault.

Naturally, she hit the roof and ended up in an isolation cell. I saw these terrifying-looking cells, with their reinforced steel doors and crash mat. That’s what we do with people in this country, in this age. We lock them in cells and leave them to stew when they are at their lowest. We tell them they are the cause of their problems. We drug them in order to give mental health staff an easier life.

If cancer patients were treated like this there would be a national scandal, and rightly so. But because mental illness is such a taboo subject, mental health patients get treated worse than animals, and who is going to expose this, protest, and demand better?

My friend witnessed another young woman, who was believed to be under section, being told that they had made a mistake, she wasn’t actually sectioned, and if she ‘behaved’ she would be free to go. To go and do what, exactly? Harm herself, live in mental torment? Probably.

It struck me that here are people who are at the end of their tether, who have finally ended up in what should be the right place, and where they should be able to get the help that they need. Instead, they are being turned away or blamed for their own problems. My friend’s Mum visited, and one of the staff told her that although her daughter appeared to be upset, earlier she had been ‘fine’, sitting quietly in the lounge.
So unless you’re making a ‘scene’ you’re not suffering, apparently, and are at risk of being sent home. You’d think that would be preferable to staying in a mental hospital, but when you’re in need of psychiatric help and in acute distress, not in control of your actions, it may well be that you’d prefer to be in hospital. The result is that patients may feel the need to ‘act out’ their feelings more in order to ‘prove’ their mental distress. This is bad news for patients and staff alike.

The other thing that struck me was how little individual care the patients received. My friend has suffered from eating disorders in the past and has been bravely battling her demons for years. I’d say that she is now probably the healthiest person I know, though her battle to defeat her disorder will be a continuing fight. Why then weigh her, despite her protestations? She is clearly neither under- or overweight, so why possibly trigger a bad reaction from her, particularly when she is at her most vulnerable?

To add to this, the hospital hasn’t been providing her with suitable food (she’s a vegan), despite the fact that they do provide kosher, halal and even afro-Caribbean meal options. This is disrespectful and could have easily triggered another ‘starvation project’. Friends have had to bring in suitable food because the NHS just couldn’t come up with the goods. My friend also had difficulty keeping warm because, as well as the lack of food (portions were tiny even for those whose dietary requirements were catered for), patients only had one blanket each, and it is cold on the ward.

I wonder what will become of St Ann’s Hospital, with its dilapidated and in some cases empty buildings? Another luxury housing development is my guess, at some point in the next 10 to 15 years.* And what of the people in mental distress, who are at the end of the line and in desperate need of help? If they’re lucky they will access private psychiatric care. Those without the means to afford that will struggle on, doing untold harm to themselves and those around them. Spare a thought for the children of the severely mentally ill, for example; Philip Larkin’s line ‘man passes on misery to man, it deepens like a coastal shelf’ springs sadly to mind.

The least fortunate will end their lives when things simply become too unbearable, just like the 19 year old man who jumped from ‘Suicide Bridge’ attempted to do last week. For over one hundred years it is where people have headed when they have wanted to end the misery. Usually they will be known to mental health services.

Our campaign to get better anti-suicide measures put in place at the bridge continues: please sign the petition: 

I consulted my friend before posting this article. She felt that although painful for her to read, she wanted it to be posted.

*Since I wrote this piece, a ‘consultation’ has arrived on my doormat regarding the future of St Ann’s. The plan is to make most of it into housing, some of it – it doesn’t say how much – will be ‘affordable’. Wow, I must be psychic. How about improving the existing mental health services rather than drastically reducing them?