It was Kerry’s “worst breakdown.” She was 27 years old and convinced she had to set herself on fire to save the world. Now she was wrestling with the lid of a petrol can.
Kerry knew she was really ill. She’d had schizoaffective disorder since she was 19. She could spot the warning signs. She’d already tried, and failed, to get help from her doctor and other services. Eventually, feeling unable to stay safe, she went to the A&E (a British term for “emergency room”) in the middle of the night and pleaded to be admitted. She was told that a bed couldn’t be found and sent home with the promise that a mental health team would visit in the morning.
“I was lucky. I couldn’t get the lid off the petrol can. It was stuck shut. So that’s kind of why I’m still here. Three days later I was sectioned [British slang for “committed to a mental ward”]. The whole thing really damaged my trust in services. I kept asking for help but no one was really doing anything.”
Now 31, Kerry has seen the best and worst of NHS mental health care. The frustration of being dumped on long waiting lists. The anger at being shunted “like pass the parcel” between services. The trauma of being stuck in a police cell while mentally ill—”one of the worst experiences of my life”. But the support she received from a specialist psychosis team transformed her life. She just wishes it hadn’t taken seven years to get it.
“That team pretty much turned my life around from not really functioning at all, to me doing a master’s degree and then getting a job and getting engaged,” she says. “They were absolutely brilliant. But before I got to see them, I’d found it really, really difficult to access services.”
Mental health conditions are common. Around one in four Britons (23 percent) has a mental health issue each year, according to the last official survey. That figure includes a range of conditions, from the 15 percent of people with depression or anxiety to the 0.4 percent with psychosis disorders like schizophrenia.
But experiences like Kerry’s aren’t unusual. Good care is out there but it is too rare and takes too long to find.
Barely a week goes by without a crisis in mental health services hitting the headlines. A national bed shortage means people in crisis are being shunted all over the country for hospital care. Kids are waiting over two years for treatment and being admitted to adult psychiatric wards. And, worst of all, in the 21st century we still see thousands of mentally unwell adults and hundreds of children put in police cells because NHS services can’t or won’t take them.
Why is this happening? Partly, it’s because our mental health system is being forced to do more with less.
Demand is rising. Doctors prescribed an average of more than 1 million antidepressants per week in 2013, double the number prescribed a decade earlier. There were 1.75 million adults getting help for severe mental illness in 2013-14, up 10 percent from the previous year. People were detained under the Mental Health Act more than 53,000 times in 2013-14—the highest recorded level, and 30 percent more often than ten years ago. And the number of children admitted to hospital for self-harm is at a five-year high.
These growing numbers may partly reflect improving public attitudes to mental health. The fear of seeking help is being broken down, partly due to the national Time to Change anti-stigma campaign launched in 2009. And awareness among medics is improving, too. As one doctor said to me, “Why are we seeing more mental health cases? Partly, because we’re better at looking for them.”
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