I think I first became interested in the subject of mental illness as a child growing up in the fifties. We had to visit our Auntie Pat in Brookwood Hospital in Woking, Surrey on our regular monthly visits to my Grandad and Grandmas house in Cranleigh, Surrey. I say ‘had to’ as to be honest it was not my favourite trip although I did love the village green community that was Cranleigh in those days. Sunday afternoon walks through Cranleigh to watch Peter May the Surrey and England cricketer who lived on the green and stepped out for the local village team to crack boundaries around the square were memorable but at five years of age and in 1956, Hospitals for the mentally ill were still quite scary places, seemingly not much further advanced than mediæval Institutes for the criminally insane.
As we walked through the Hospital halls and corridors to the lounge where my Auntie sat quietly awaiting our visits, we were confronted by all kinds of distressed and anxious characters, suffering with varied conditions of anxiety, psychiatric disorder and psychosis and all crammed together in a woefully inadequate space with tragically insufficient nursing care. Despite a real sense of relief when our time came to leave and journey back to my Grandfathers house for tea, I also felt an instinctive compassion and concern for my poor Auntie Pat who we had to leave behind in such a seemingly hostile and distressing atmosphere. Even at such a young age I felt really sad for those poor souls whose individual complaints they so vividly vocalised with their own cries of anguish, screams and shouts that lingered long in my memory.
I am reminded of those upsetting visits to see my Auntie Patricia whenever I watch a favourite movie of mine, the Milos Forman Oscar-winning adaption of the same-titled stage play Amadeus. The film version begins with the arrival of a priest, Father Vogler, who visits the despondent and mentally tortured court composer Antonio Salieri who is a patient at the Vienna Assylum For The Insane. The film depicts Salieri finishing his life, languishing in melancholy and guilt after he confesses to contributing to the early demise of Amadeus Mozart, possibly even poisoning him. The scenes of life depicted in the mediæval Institute for the insane where Salieri is incarcerated bring poignant and chilling memories back of my poor Aunties final days, lived out in a place that although not anywhere near as severe was not dissimilar either and I have to assume may well have contributed to her early death.
My next close encounter with the Mentally ill occurred whilst working as a Hospital Porter in the late sixties/early seventies. The cottage Hospital where I worked for four years was positioned alongside both Sutton Psychiatric and Banstead Mental Hospitals. Banstead or Belmont Hospital had been selected for use as an experimental facility entitled ‘Downview’ where patients suffering with varied and extreme mental and behavioural disorders along with acute substance abusers were being treated by “groundbreaking” self-help nursing.
On our few rare visits to collect ward furniture and spare beds from the Downview, us porters were confronted by the pretty wild environment and liberal atmosphere the experimental treatment at the hospital encouraged. Graffitied walls, assorted debris, even excrement and on one occasion we witnessed the sight of one patients bed being launched through a 2nd floor open window and down to the ground while we were passing.
The newly built Sutton Psychiatric Ward was positioned between the cottage hospital where I worked and the Royal Marsden Cancer Treatment Hospital at Belmont Road, Sutton where my mother worked. The treatment at the annexe was thankfully of a more conventional style and still based on a more patient/nurse/doctor arrangement using traditional therapies. The patients were not as distressed as those admitted to the Downview and they were basically detained under medication and for observation.
Again, from time to time the Sutton Porters were required to enter the Psychiatric Annexe to carry out their duties. Deliver x-rays, collect and return patients occasionally for x-ray and medical care etc.. During such visits we were able to strike up mild associations with the patients and in getting to know them gained their confidence to a notable degree. I was learning a lot from these friendships and about the nature of various mental illnesses and I myself was reading books on psychology, such as Professor R.D.Laings classic ‘the Politics of Experience’ and other maybe more mystical or therapeutic literature.
A little later on and due to a clear, spiritual conversion to Christian faith I began attending an Evangelically-minded Pentecostal Church where I personally felt encouraged to begin a Christian fellowship of my own within the Hospital and among the nursing and Hospital staff. I also began a Tuesday Lunchtime Christian Outreach in the grounds of the Psychiatric Annexe which functioned in their Sports Hall. I invited inmates to attend which for a brief while they did – sometimes upwards of 20 patients.
The Hospital Management however, sadly decided to outlaw my Christian Outreach after complaints that I was working under my own mandate and not with the blessing of the Official Hospitals Chaplaincy. It seemed baffling, sad and also hypocritical to me that people sharing the same faith would wish to terminate something so vital and helpful to people in need of succour and Christian charity only to replace it with nothing but my first personal involvement and contact with the wonderful world of the mentally ill, I would never forget.
At the age of 24 I opened my first Art shop and from time to time employed part-time staff to help me. The second of these was a young woman named Caroline who had recently suffered a traumatic nervous breakdown and was under treatment at a Psychiatric Hospital near Croydon in Surrey, at the notoriously and somewhat urban-titled ‘Warlingham’. I visited Caroline in Warlingham Hospital while she was briefly an inmate and offered her work as a sales assistant at our shop as I felt sure she would be suited to the work and that it would aid her recovery from her illness.
CASE STUDY: CAROLINE
Carolyn had always had a nervous and intense personality. She was insecure due in part to losing her father at an early age and her mother with whom she had always shared a real closeness had recently re-married. In my view Caroline had over-extended herself at a time of home insecurity in a moment of possibly reactionary, religious fervour while studying at University. In a seemingly noble attempt to evangelise her whole class, Caroline attempted an out of character, impromptu evangelistic speech that she made to those dining in the Campus Cafeteria one day. Carolyn was actually a person who required a great deal of affirmation and reassurance and her pretty radical attempt to convert her fellow students en-bloc had seriously taken her out of her comfort zone and only served to alienate her from her closest university friends and her peer group.
I believed the anti-feeling and expectable rejection she suffered had triggered a reaction of hopelessness, a loss of self-dependency and a serious loss of confidence within Caroline which in turn had exaggerated a developing ‘breakdown’ brought on by the emotional separation she was feeling from her mother who now had a new ‘best-friend’. Feelings of jealousy were also threatening Carolines acceptance of her new ‘step father’ especially after learning to live without a father for most of her life. Caroline found it difficult to express her negative feelings because of guilt and consequently was internalising which in turn increased her feelings of ‘aloneness’.
I also believed, after I came to talk with Caroline that the medication and tranquillisers she was taking to calm her were neutralising her self-will and her personal need to fight, re-assert herself and regain her self-confidence within established relationships. The medication was also affecting her personality and encouraging her to over-eat and she was gaining weight at an alarming rate which would not be helping Caroline to feel good about herself.
We developed a relationship of trust and respect, no doubt due in-part to the fact that I shared Caroline’s Christian faith and gradually Caroline gained confidence in her work at the shop, in her on-going relationships with true friends and family and with her boyfriend. At the right moment I decided to encourage Caroline to ask that her doctor would reduce her prescription. In a relatively short time Caroline came off her medication completely, her happy, friendly personality returned, she restored lifelong friendships, regained her slim, attractive figure and would soon marry, begin a family and enjoy a life with no sign of the demons of doubt and breakdown or any dependency on the medication she had been receiving.
I felt proud of the role I had played in Caroline’s complete recovery and decided there and then that I would enjoy helping people with similar issues in a full-time, working capacity. I felt that with my advise and in-tandem with her doctor’s care we had restored someone who might have gone on to require a lifetime of medication dependency and hospital care.
On moving to Boston in Lincolnshire in 1984 I determined I would not open another Art Shop. Work was scarce however for someone not raised in a rural community and as I was lacking in any relevant qualifications and had struggled to get a Sales Agency off the ground in an area already typecast as the ‘reps graveyard’, I eventually reverted back when realising that as shopkeeping was obviously my forté that is what I should be doing.
I soon had a flourishing little Art Shop dealing within the town of Boston and was providing graphic supplies to a select group of printers and the few Advertising Agents who operated within a 50 odd mile radius of my home town. I ran the shop successfully for 5 – 6 years but finally decided the time was right to take the bull by the horns and fulfil my growing hearts desire to work with the mentally ill.
I answered a job vacancy advertisement submitted by the Lincolnshire Health Authority for Mental Healthcare Nurses who would be trained to SEN standard and would be required to work at the Rauceby Psychiatric Hospital in Sleaford, located some 18 miles or so from Boston. After applying for entry to the 3 year working-course I was invited to complete an in-house Mathematics Entrance Exam as I was that one GCE short of the necessary qualifications to begin the course. I journeyed to Rauceby after my Interview with the Hospitals Professor to take the Exam and was schoolboy-excited when I passed and realised the door was now wide open to me to satisfy that gnawing desire in my soul that I should finally work alongside the mentally ill.
My excitement however was sadly soon tempered on returning to my self-employed work running a burgeoning Art Materials Shop especially when I looked at the sales figures and the dramatic loss of earnings I was contemplating over a number of years, alongside the size and needs of our 4 growing children.
I put the business up for sale recognising I would need a top sale price to make the switch and while the business prospered those interested in buying me out were not only few but also acutely aware that such a business required specialist knowledge and attention. This put all but a few off the idea and only seemed to be encouraging others to start their own Shops and avoid the need to buy mine.
Our small shop unit boasted well over 50 niche suppliers and required painstaking control to keep it well stocked but viable. Despite the inherent complications of our business it was performing well and my dream of helping the mentally ill soon began to fade as we were forced to enlarge the business by taking a second unit at around the same time that those Assylums of a previous age, Institutions and Hospitals like Brookwood, Warlingham, Banstead and Rauceby were all coming under an increased threat of closure as the NHS began to recognise their place in mental healthcare was coming to an end.
Antiquated, run-down, inefficient, unnecessarily expensive, ineffective – these were just a few of the criticisms labelled on these apparent dinosaurs of a previous age as newer thinking on mental healthcare and cost-saving policy’s became rife in the beleaguered NHS. Asylums and Institutes for the mentally ill or Insane would definitely soon become a thing of the past. I accepted that although these changes were no doubt for the betterment of mental healthcare – the now of the nineties would not be the best time for someone of my 40+ years to be making the switch to mental nursing. I would surely have become just a pterodactyl squawking among the dinosaurs, floating high above the needs and aspirations of those I desperately wanted to help, disconnected and adjacent – I decided to stay working as an Art Shop man and stick to something I already knew.
Life as a shopkeeper and lately a sales advisor for over 44 years and as a caring human has afforded me many opportunities to help ordinary people leading normal lives, come to terms with their difficulties and cope with the pressures and problems of life and circumstance that we all experience to a greater or lesser extent and at different stages of life’s journey.
One in four adults will experience a mental illness at some point each year in the UK. This ranges from anxiety and depression to alcohol dependence, substance misuse and psychosis.
Three in four mental illnesses start in childhood. 75% of mental illnesses start before a child reaches their 18th birthday, while 50% of mental health problems in adult life (excluding dementia) take root before the age of 15.
10% of school children hava a diagnosable mental illness. In an average class of 30 young people, three will have a mental health problem. Figures show 10% of children aged 5-16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
75% of youg people with a mental health problem receive no treatment. There’s been a rise in the time children are having to wait to receive treatment for complex mental health conditions, and children with depression and anxiety are often not being identified or given help.
Please follow the link to read more of these fascinating and worrying statistics or to sign up and join the MQ Movement.
I am glad the arena of healthcare for the mentally ill has changed. I am glad there are no longer such morbid, dank and sad incarcerations where the lives of those who are not a danger to the general public are hidden away in shame, only to be forgotten like my Auntie Pat, until their own futility and unhappiness engulfs them and they expire unseen, unknown and uncared for – this is one changed face of modern living we surely can all applaud.
In Memory of Patricia Eede
my Aunt and a lady I wish I could have known better
God rest her soul!