Life on the (forensic) psych ward

cuckooIt wasn’t what I expected….switching over to Channel 4 to watch Life on the Psych Ward this evening (thanks mum for reminding your hopelessly forgetful daughter that it was on….). The first thing I noticed was that they were discussing offenders. Wow, that’s offensive! But no, it wasn’t explicitly saying all people with mental health issues are criminals. But it might as well have been saying that to anyone who didn’t pick up on the forensic focus…being one of a number of types of psych wards.

So this generic title was rather misleading. Point one. But then the focus on schizophrenia and personality disorders among the offending community wasn’t especially well explained either. This is one type of ward. Not a personality disorder ward, but a forensic psych ward.

Don’t get me wrong, the patients and their families were incredibly brave and honest; the NHS Maudsley team had the unenviable position of balancing somebody’s liberty with public safety. It was honest and moving – and heartbreaking.

BUT (sorry, but it is a big but) the positioning seemed rather (a lot) unfair. I am not a mental health expert but (another one) I am somebody who has been in the company of individuals with schizophrenia and personality disorders. Friends, family and individuals I have met through work.

Did they scare me? No. But some of their comments did…

It’s 2016, and in the spring I spent time with clients at one of our mental health services (I work for Home Group – a national charity and social enterprise that manages supported living for vulnerable individuals across the country). I had so much fun. This particular scheme is called Aviary House and the residents and staff were amazing, brilliant fun and made me feel right at home. When we (myself and my former colleague, Kim) got up to leave, one of the clients said ‘will you come back and visit us soon?’. Another client didn’t want us to leave her self contained flat as she was enjoying telling us stories about Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. She also spoke to God as if s/he were there in the room with us (unless that was also a reference to Jimi Hendrix. Or indeed Janis Joplin. My God is gender neutral. And I reckon would have to be a bit of a rock god just like Edina Monsoon’s vision of Marianne Faithful on her death bed.)

So yes, it was fun. And if it wasn’t for the 4 hour journey back we would have loved to stop and eat bourbons and drink tea and discuss the musical genius of 70s rock legends until the sun went down. And no, I never felt scared. So why did what they said scare me? Because it is so upsetting to hear that in 2016 these wonderful yet vulnerable people experienced such stigma. They said people often presume them to be dangerous. To be criminals. I am not aware that any of those clients had been in prison.

So we spent time discussing the merits of the recent (as was then) EastEnders storyline about Stacey’s postpartum psychosis. It was for a feature in our client magazine. One client said he felt ‘relief’ when that storyline aired. Because he felt it was about time the media portrayed individuals with psychosis in a more balanced and informed manner. And on that note did you know that Mind have dedicated resource to help the media and arts world portray mental health accurately? No? I was impressed too. A fab lady called Jenni who links people with lived experience of mental health with actors and programme makers to ensure a realistic and balanced picture (EastEnders actors Lacey Turner and James Bye worked with the award winning Eva Canavan on Stacey’s story.) So the Aviary House guys were very supportive of the BBCs work.

And so we come to Life on a Psych Ward. The content of the programme was good. The lack of context, however, not good. And in fact could be quite damaging to individuals who are already vulnerable.

The clients at Aviary House live with enduring mental health problems.  They are enjoying more independence and doing far more for themselves. They are managing their physical health by visiting the gym, developing new skills through college courses and making friends with neighbours and local shopkeepers. They are positive contributors to their community.

So in case Channel 4 do not make any more programmes about life on the psych ward showing the broader aspects of mental health, I urge you to take a look at this video from when the fab Denise Welch visited Aviary House. I would like you to know she had no bodyguard present. Because people with personality disorders and schizophrenia are not all dangerous people by a long shot! All you will see here are smiles, laughter and hugs. I’m sure they are not smiling 24/7. But then were you smiling this morning when you were nose to bumper in standstill traffic? We are all human.

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