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A total smoking ban for detained psychiatric patients stinks of coercion

7 Nov


Following on from my piece ‘Banned by the BMJ’, below is the article which was to be published in the British Medical Journal on 7th November as part of the ‘Head to Head’ series ahead of the Maudsley debate. I was to put the ‘no’ side of the debate. This piece was written in that context with the medical readership of the British Medical Journal in mind – an audience which had never heard of me and which may have been unfamiliar with many of the materials I reference – and to the BMJ’s word limit.


I was detained under UK mental health law in 2011. I am a non-smoker.

Arguing that detained patients should be banned completely from smoking is, in essence, arguing that people with mental health problems should not be treated as full human beings but instead as a subset ripe for discrimination.

Everyone, including doctors, makes broad assumptions about psychiatric patients and our ability to make choices and interact with others. When we are locked up, the medical profession assumes it has the moral right to impose lifestyle changes. However, no-one is sectioned for being a smoker: we are sectioned because we’re considered a danger to ourselves or, more rarely, others. Being a smoker is not a healthcare emergency, and a mental health crisis is not the time to impose lifestyle changes.[1]

The ban on smoking inside psychiatric hospitals was introduced a decade ago, a time when people with mental health problems were side-lined far more. The indoor ban had clear aims: to create a safer working environment for staff and to respect the right of non-smoking patients to have a smoke-free surrogate home. The rights of smoking patients were protected by providing access to designated outdoor smoking areas. The aims of the outdoor ban are less clear. For example, the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust vaguely says that it aims to “create a healthier environment for everyone” and “reduce … inequality.” [2]

A complete ban prevents detained smokers without leave from smoking (or, rather, smoking overtly). It relies on the ward doors being locked. You do not increase patient “equality” by use of force. It is simply a case of “because we can”.

I am very much in favour of making psychiatric wards healthier and bringing about sustainable improvements to patients’ health. When I was fragile and detained, the ward environment was toxic. Food with no fibre, poor sleep hygiene measures, no access to exercise or fresh air, no therapy and nothing to do except sit round eating biscuits and drinking coffee – and avoid being assaulted. I was repeatedly medicated by force. I have since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. [3] There was no smoking reduction or cessation help available. There is a great deal of scope for psychiatric hospitals to make wards healthier. [4] [5] [6]

If improving health were the reason for the ban, hospitals would make stopping smoking compulsory for staff too – 24 hours a day, even at home. That, of course won’t happen because staff wouldn’t stand for it. Unlike staff, though, patients can’t vote with their feet.

Behind all this lies a weight of history, law and medical practice which call on the entrenched notion that people with mental health problems need not be considered full human beings. The ability to use force runs through psychiatry like letters through a stick of rock. Coercion is the backbone of psychiatry. Patients experience psychiatric wards as coercive, not therapeutic.[7] [8] I was treated by force. I was locked in seclusion with no water, no food, no access to a toilet and no contact with the outside world, without even my glasses or shoes. Psychiatrists who visit wards do not truly know what goes on behind closed doors. Trusts must make wards better, not more coercive.

Where is the evidence that SLaM’s aims will be achieved by temporary enforced abstinence based on dominance, duress and fear? A ward stay is an opportunity to build therapeutic relationships with staff that may continue afterwards in the community and could lead to sustainable smoking reduction or even cessation and reduce healthcare inequalities. In psychiatry, unlike any other medical specialty, engagement with patients and persuasion are relegated to “nice to haves.” If patients can’t go elsewhere for medical advice because they are locked up and the law gives staff the right to use force, there’s no need to hone these skills.

Law and societal changes are moving towards reducing discrimination against people with mental health problems. [9] [10] [11] [12] With this ban, psychiatry is moving against the trend. This is morally indefensible and goes against patients’ rights to be at the centre of decisions about our care and treatment. Medicine shouldn’t be about imposing a doctor-dictated “fix” but helping patients to find to solutions that work in our lives.[13]



1. Smoking and psychiatric wards – Georgia Rambles blog, Dr Georgia Belam (30 September 2014)

2. Stoptober, supporting lifestyle change and preventing psychiatric patients from smoking – Sectioned UK blog, @Sectioned_ (14 October 2014)

3. Do you remember your first time? – Sectioned UK blog (16 November 2014)

4. A smoking ban for mental health workers in the workplace – Nurse With Glasses blog, @nurse_w_glasses (15 November 2013)

5. SmokingWardipedia, a World of Ward Knowledge, @WardipediaNews

6. How can psychiatric wards become better, healthier places? – Sectioned UK blog (26 October 2015)

7. On the ward – abuse in the mental health system – Schizoaffected3 blog, @schizoaffected (27 June 2015)

8. Coercion in a locked psychiatric ward: Perspectives of patients and staff. (I asked for helps as to how to cite this link properly)

9. Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act 1983 (January 2015) which, for the first time, includes a section on human rights (chapter 3).

10. “The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century. It reaffirms disabled people’s human rights and signals a further major step in disabled people’s journey to becoming full and equal citizens.” Equality & Human Rights Commission on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (Ratified by the UK in June 2009)

11. Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013 (28 February 2013) This Act removed discriminatory mental health legislation affecting MPs, school governors, company directors and would-be jury members.

12. Mental health advocacy and human rights: your guideBritish Institute of Human Rights (2013)

13. What it’s really like to work on a mental health wardIndependent, Dr Sebastian Cook (26 October 2015) 12




Should we be worried about the rise of antidepressants? #PillShaming

6 Jan

Another post where I’ve set out my thoughts in tweets and hope to write it up into a blog post but, in the meantime, here are the tweets:




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Related links (in date order):





Do you remember your first time?

16 Nov
My bedspace after one incidence of forced treatment by six people.

My bedspace after one incidence of forced treatment when I was restrained and injected on my bed by six people.


Open quotes


Patient: When you’re unwell you need care. And what I got was punishment. So when I was unwell I was extremely stressed and I was anxious. And I was taken by the police from my bedroom, unlawfully as it turned out, erm, from my bedroom into hospital where I was assaulted by patients and staff and I was held down and drugged repeatedly. And nobody came and spoke to me and said this is what’s happening, this is the diagnosis you have, we think you’re experiencing this and this drug will help you. Nobody came and spoke to me. And instead what they did was I would just be on my bed, reading a book, or not reading a book, couldn’t read, I would be on my bed, doing something, minding my own business, and I would turn around and there’d be a team of six people with rubber gloves who would hold me down [Starts to cry], pull my trousers down and drug me. They didn’t tell me what the drug was, they didn’t tell me what the effects were, they didn’t tell me what to expect, they didn’t tell me how long it would last, they didn’t tell me what it was for. Nothing. And they would finish and they would climb off my bed and they would walk away. And I wouldn’t know when they would come back. And they did that, erm, over and over and over and over again over a period of several days. I don’t know what they were giving me and I only found out after I left and saw my medical notes some of the drugs they were giving me. Sometimes they’d make a mistake and they’d give me drugs twice. Even though I went to the counter to get my drugs, take them voluntarily, they would still hold me down and give me other drugs. [In a strong voice, stops crying] So in that context I don’t think medication was helpful. The approach was unhelpful. What that approach does is it makes people afraid to ask for help.

Interviewer: It’s incredibly brutal. Can I go and get you a tissue?

Patient: No, no, I come prepared. I always have tissues with me.

Interviewer: Are you okay to …

Patient: Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.

Interviewer: And that was your first experience of medication as well?

Patient: Exactly. I don’t, I don’t take … Well, before this experience, I didn’t take anything. I didn’t take aspirin, I didn’t take paracetamol. I didn’t even drink coffee. You know, I didn’t take any drugs. I had a fear of drugs. I had a fear of needles. I have low blood pressure so if you give me a needle I’ll faint. So if you want to give me a needle I need to be lying down, I need to be calm and then … Whatever. So, Close quoteser. So I’m, you know … Now I know a lot about drugs. [laughs] I know a lot about drugs. Erm, before that, no, that was my, that was my first experience of drugs.



Do you remember your first time? I do. I remember the first time I was treated by force. I remember it very well. The account above is an unedited segment from the transcript of my February 2012 interview with a researcher. In it, I briefly describe my first time being treated by force. That interview was also the first time I’d been able to speak to anyone in detail about what had actually been done to me in hospital. I knew it would be difficult and emotional, but I forced myself to take that first step in speaking out as part of a research project. It was six months after I’d been discharged from an acute inpatient psychiatric ward but, even so, I was floored for a week by the emotion of the interview.

Then, the following month, I found myself tweeting in bursts, over the course of several hours, about my experience of being treated by force. That was the first time I’d conjured up those images in detail and written them down for others to read. As I tweeted, I shook, cried, felt sick – but kept going. I couldn’t turn it into a full blog post but instead wrote a short one (Treated like an animal) linking to the collated tweets. I hadn’t read them back till just now: I couldn’t. That blog post and collated tweets have since been read thousands of times.

Three months later, in June, mental health charity Mind launched a campaign to end use of face-down restraint on psychiatric wards and that prompted me to write about forced medication again (Restraint – 10 ways it harms psychiatric patients). That post was read even more times than the first, though the toll in writing it was, thankfully, less on me. That was because, this time, I wasn’t conjuring up images of what it was like to be forcibly medicated in order to convey a picture to the public: it was a more considered overview of the topic. Almost a year after discharge, it seemed I’d begun to attain some distance from what was done to me.

Then, in November of that same year, the interview transcript arrived and a mental health charity asked me to write a piece for them about my experience of forced medication for their campaign. I forced myself, again and again, to sit down and bring to mind, in great detail, what it was like, so the reader could envisage themselves there, in the moment, being on the receiving end themselves. It took a heavy toll on me emotionally. Trying to edit it was toughest. Trying to take my raw recollections and shape them into something suitable for a mainstream audience without being overwhelmed by the intensity of the recollections. In the end, I couldn’t submit the written work. (It’s languished on my computer for 2 years, and I’ve only just looked at it. And I’ve only just glanced through the research interview transcript.) What that reinforced for me was that speaking or writing about forced treatment is a part of a healing process for me and something I cannot conjure up to order: it has to naturally arise from me when the time is right. I have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what was done to me in hospital, and that’s just what I’ve got to work with.

It was another four months before I wrote about forced treatment again, in March this year (Forced medication: resistance is futile). I was able to write my first proper blog post describing one aspect of it. Compared to 12 months earlier, I noticed that tweeting about the topic (almost all my blog posts arise from tweets!) had been less overwhelmingly painful and that I’d been able to go back afterwards and edit the tweets into a blog post. It seemed as if I was naturally and instinctively keeping a distance from something that had injured me to the core, gradually circling round it and every now and then being able to touch on the subject. It seemed that, each time, after several months had passed, I was able to return to the subject with a little less terror.

So here I am, 8 months later, over 3 years since I was discharged from hospital, writing about forced treatment again. Circling the subject again, adding a little more depth, noticing that I can now approach it with a little less pain, with fewer flashbacks and  physical responses.

And what is new this time I’m writing about forced medication? It’s not a topic I’ve seen discussed much on social media or in the mainstream media. But then, it’s not something I’ve been able (emotionally) to investigate. However, I have been aware (very much at arm’s length) of campaigns to reduce the use of physical and chemical restraint and seclusion related to what’s called “challenging behaviour”. These include Mind’s campaign to end the use of face-down restraint and Mersey Care NHS Trust’s No Force First pilot to create coercion-free psychiatric inpatient wards. I’m also aware of research on conflict and containment in inpatient psychiatric settings which highlights that it’s staff, not patients, who influence how much of each there is likely to be. There may well be research and discussion on forced medication that’s passed me by, and please do let me know if you come across any.

For me, forced medication is very much a separate topic to use of force in situations of danger (to the patient themselves or others) or conflict (such as verbal abuse or violence). Forced medication is about a psychiatrist deciding on a course of treament (medication) and leaving ward staff to get on with administering that. It seems to me there are no controls over use of forced medication, other than the good will of staff and we already know that, when one group of people is given power over another, it may not always be a benevolent dictatorship. Even with the best of intentions, shortcuts can be taken – and using force to medicate someone is the ultimate shortcut – and staff can become aclimatised to routine use of force.

Here, then, are my recommendations for reducing the use of forced medication and thereby the harm it causes:

  1. Collation of national statistics on use of forced treatment – Make it compulsory to record each use of forced medication and to report it nationally. That way, national statistics and a picture of best practice can emerge as the basis for comparisons and for developing evidenced-based interventions. That will necessitate development of standard definitions of forced treatment, particularly since my medical notes record “No restraint employed” in relation to the first incident of forced medication. So, for instance, I would include (but in different categories), where use of force is mentioned to a patient in order to coerce them to take medication “voluntarily”; where the medication “hit squad” attends and stands near a patient to encourage them to take the medication “voluntarily”; and what was done to me (ie the full 6-person take-down). Make use of forced treatment a notifiable process (like a notifiable disease): it’s such an invasive process – state-sanctioned assault on someone at their most vulerable – that there cannot be a justification for treating it in such a slapdash way.
  2. Earning the right to use forced treatment – Make use of forced medication a right which must be earned, each and every time, by exhausting every alternative option beforehand. It may suit some ward staff to go straight for forced medication as a short-cut for ward management purposes. However, patients are people who exist beyond the locked ward and will do so once they are discharged, and forced treatment can have damaging effects in the medium and long term. Forced treatment can cast a long shadow. It should never be a first resort. The Code of Practice to the Mental Health Act sets out strict conditions for use of physical restraint but forced medication is nodded through under the guise of general principles. Clearly that approach is not working, meaning that detailed guidance on the prerequisites for the use of forced medication, in the same way as they are for restraint, are necessary.
  3. Debrief patients after each use of forced treatment – I’ve seen on documentaries (such as ITV’s recent series Broadmoor) that, when a patient is physically restrained and forcibly medicated, afterwards staff meet to discuss and debrief. All the while, the patient – who’s just been subjected to what, at the very least, could be described as a highly intense experience – is left in their bedroom or bed space alone to try to work through their responses. I recall time and again being left face down, underwear and trousers askew, in sheets covered in bootprints on a bed pushed out from the wall, empty antiseptic wipe packets on the floor. I’d be left shocked, terrorised, humiliated, confused, frightened, to clear up my bedspace, somehow get hold of clean sheets and somehow work out how to, well, be on the ward again. Patients need a debrief just as much as staff. Or perhaps more. After all, they are the vulnerable ones, there to be healed, not brutalised. Witness a patient’s pain. Be there to comfort them. Help them work their way through the experience.

I shouldn’t be left, over 3 years after discharge from hospital, still being triggered into flashbacks by obvious reminders like the photograph above or the word “restraint”, let alone such seemingly innocent stimuli as the flicker of fluorescent lights, the hum of air conditioning or traffic cops chasing a motorist on TV. Treatment is supposed to help patients. No patient should ever leave the ward more harmed than when they went in, too scared to ask for help in future and only referring to “that place” in hushed tones. Good psychiatric inpatient wards exist all over the country. Hopefully these three proposals are a helpful addition to dialogue around ridding the psychiatric system of forced medication by learning from those who use it least.




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Related web links:


My previous posts on forced treatment (each containing links):


On restraint, conflict and containment:





Forced medication: resistance is futile

19 Mar
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler, with corps de ballet dancers William Lin-Yee and Andrew Bartee in Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tänze (Six Dances). Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carrie Imler, with corps de ballet dancers William Lin-Yee and Andrew Bartee in Jiri Kylian’s Sechs Tänze (Six Dances). Photo © Angela Sterling.

Someone found my blog today by searching “how to get out of the restraint that psychiatric wards use”. That lead to these tweets on my experience of forced medication on a psychiatric ward (set out below, slightly edited).

I discovered that nothing I did or said made any difference to the use of restraint on me: they were going to carry on and do it, no matter what. It made no difference to them what I said or did. All I could do was try to make a difference to me.


Someone found my blog today by searching “how to get out of the restraint that psychiatric wards use”. Yeah, no chance there: it’s six to one. I discovered that nothing I did or said made any difference to the use of restraint on me: they were going to carry on and do it, no matter what.

In my experience of restraint, once there’s a tick on the chart saying “forced medication”, it’s going to be done to you, no matter what. Once there’s a tick in the box saying “forced medication”, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re getting it.

It made no difference that I’d never been asked whether I’d like pills or an injection. The forced med squad just turned up and did it to me. It made no difference that I’d never been asked which drug I’d prefer to take. They just climbed on top, pinned me down and stuck it in me. It made no difference that I’d never had a discussion about symptoms or potential diagnoses or treatments. They just carried out orders.

It made no difference that I was sitting on my bed, reading quietly, minding my own business. They’d turn up mob-handed & do their business. It made no difference that I’d stepped out of a meeting with the IMHA to get a letter from my bedroom she’d asked to see. They came in as I sat on the floor, document wallet in hand, surrounded by papers. They did it to me there, then walked off chatting, leaving me to wander back to the IMHA, disheveled and dazed.

It made no difference when I pleaded with them to explain what they were doing, what was in the syringe (or syringes – it varied), what effect it would have on me. None. It made no difference when I talked calmly to them, speaking to each by name, asking them to explain why they were injecting me. None. It made no difference when I repeatedly called out a friend’s name, calling to mind someone who cared for me, who heard my words. None.

It made no difference whether it was night or day. They could turn up any time, stick it in me, roll off, leave me lying in dirty sheets. It made no difference when (realising nurses wouldn’t speak to me) I wrote notes and handed them to the nurses. The notes asked the nurses to explain what drugs they were injecting, what the effects were, what they were for and what the plan was going forwards. No response. They just handed each note back to me later, unopened.

It even made no difference when I was first in the drugs queue so I could take the pills instead: they still came for me again. I had a double dose that day.

The staff weren’t monsters. Far from it. They’d chat away to each other, coordinating between themselves who was going to take which limb; who was doing what when; and then when to let go as one.

They’d chat away to each other as if the person beneath them was not a person who spoke their language but a wild and senseless beast. They’d leave behind a bed pushed out from the wall, sheets trampled under their boots, empty swab wrappers on the floor, lumps and bruises on my arms and legs. They’d leave behind a person who didn’t know what had just been done to them, or why, or when it would happen again, or how to make it stop.

I learned that, when they come for you, there is no escape. You are locked in and cornered. It is going to happen. It makes no difference what you say or do.

I learned that, when they come for you, there is no escape. You are locked in and cornered. It is going to happen. It makes no difference what you say or do. You can’t reason with people who won’t listen to you. You can’t persuade people who don’t hear you. You can’t resist them when it’s six to one, even if (unlike me) you knew how. You can’t reason with people who are just carrying out orders. You can’t persuade people who don’t think you’re worth asking.

It’s like being in a science fiction novel. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. Comply, cooperate and engage. Resistance just prolongs the process. The quickest way to get out is to comply, cooperate & engage.

I found that there was nothing I could say or do to stop them using restraint on me. But things I said and did helped me cling on to me. Little things I did and said as they did their business on me helped me to cling to my sense of being a person, a human being not an animal.

It made no difference to them what I said or did. All I could do was try to make a difference to me.



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Related links:




Trust, respect and coercion in mental health services

12 Feb

Trust dancers

Trust, respect and coercion: Can people who use mental health services ever really trust staff when coercion is always an option?

Some thoughts of mine on the subject.

Some responses of the lovely twitter people.



South London and Maudsley on film: humanity and humour

28 Oct

Bedlam (4) OCT 2013Bedlam (1) OCT 2013

Looking at a newspaper story about the murder of drummer Lee Rigby earlier in the year, Lloyd, who has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, said that hearing about schizophrenics in the news made him feel worse. He worried that he didn’t know his own mind and wondered if he himself could turn into a murderer too, since that’s what he read in the papers. Dealing with the symptoms of psychosis can be difficult enough in itself. Having to deal with society’s perceptions that people with your diagnosis are violent and unpredictable adds another level of difficulty.

Earlier today, I attended an advance screening of Channel 4’s new series on the realities of modern mental health care at the South London and Maudsley (SLaM) mental health trust.  In the screening room in the basement of Channel 4′s headquarters in Horseferry Road, a select audience sat in red plush seats watching one of four programmes in the series on modern mental health care. The series is entitled Bedlam and the name choice has caused controversy. To an extent it can be argued that, when a respected NHS trust calls a television series after a medieval asylum, it dilutes the strength of the case against Thorpe Park’s “mental patient scary fun” horror maze Asylum. But what of the series itself?

The episode previewed profiled the work of Speedwell community mental health team (CMHT) in Deptford, south London, over the course of a year. The four-part series, which starts at 9pm this Thursday, also covers the Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit, Lambeth Triage (the front line for emergency cases) and the older adults unit (over 65s).

Without giving too much away, we followed patients Tamara, Lloyd and Rosemary, all of whom experience psychosis. We saw them trying to cope with periods of illness, voices, delusional beliefs about bed bugs and with children being taken into foster care.  We saw them using prescription drugs as well as speed and alcohol to help manage their troubling symptoms. We saw them at times chaotic and disturbed, and at other times funny and happy.

We saw social worker Jim Thurkle doing his best to hunt down and help patients, a third of whom refuse to engage with him. We saw Dr Tom Werner doing his best to confirm the stereotype of the psychiatrist in the bow tie. We saw the fine line between enabling someone to live the life they choose and intervening in the interests of their own health and safety.

Not once did we see someone who could be considered a danger to anyone else. Not once did any of the patients present as anywhere remotely near the stereotype of the paranoid schizophrenic mad axe murderer. What we saw was patients struggling to manage their lives in difficult circumstances, and the professionals who tried to help them.

It was particularly interesting to see the work of a CMHT  which, along with GPs, carry out the bulk of psychiatric care in this country. As the booklet handed out at the advance screening says:

“The lion’s share of SLaM’s work takes place in a community setting, looking after more than 35,000 people with mental health issues. SLaM treats 8,000 psychosis patients a year; 6,000 of whom are based and treated in the community. We touch on different treatments available and see intense and moving interaction with social workers and mental health teams.”

As Pete Beard, the producer of the episode, who answered questions after the screening, said:

“We wanted to reflect the realities of this challenging work, following the actual narratives of people walking a tightrope with their mental health as it happened and the teams who act as a safety net. I feel that these realities are rarely reflected accurately in the media and as a result it is important to demystify the work performed as community teams, especially taboo subjects such as being sectioned”.

It was profoundly moving to see someone taken away from their own home, against their will, and detained with no legal authority other than the personal opinions of a social worker and doctors. No police arrest, no court process, no judge, no jury. Just a simple form signed, and you have no choice about even the simplest things like what you eat, where you sleep or what shampoo you use to wash your hair. And, on a more intrusive level, you have no right to refuse medication.

This extended scene cannot help but make you reflect on the balance of power between the state and the individual, and on what society deems to be acceptable norms of behaviour. This is especially so when you’re dealing with someone you don’t really know, as can be the case when a mental health team is called out to consider sectioning someone. Britain has a proud tradition of eccentricity, but that is not tolerated if you are deemed to be mentally ill. Simply being a nuisance to others but in no way dangerous to yourself or others can, ultimately, mean three people decide on your behalf that your quality of life will be improved by a compulsory stay in a locked psychiatric ward.

The sectioning sequence made me think about the boundaries or free will and autonomy and to what extent people’s peculiarities are tolerated. I have been on the receiving end of such a process, and it changed my life irrevocably. As Dr Baggaley said, when he’s taken part in sectionings he does wonder whether this was what he trained for. Although he sees it as difficult, he does see it as necessary.

Dr Baggaley described the person in question as a “revolving door patient” who would face repeated hospitalisations, some under section (compulsion), for the rest of their life. And yet this is someone who will – under the current welfare benefits system – also face repeated Work Capability Assessments. It is hard to see the point of such assessments in this case particularly since, as Dr Sarah Wollaston MP wrote today, WCA’s are not geared towards helping people with mental health problems find and retain employment.

One of the things which struck me in this episode was the amount of humour. Despite their difficult circumstances and troubling symptoms, the patients followed could come across as affable, amenable and warm-hearted. Ripples of laughter would regularly rumble across the audience, and not just because viewers were looking for a little light relief in what was, after all, a serious topic. As with any other fly-on-the-wall documentary, the colourful charaters in this episode were full of humour. The seriousness of the subject matter made the flashes of levity even more welcome.

Overall, this preview episode was intimate, insightful and profound. It showed human beings in all our difficulties, complexities and ambiguities. It showed the realities of trying to combat the stigma around mental illness with humanity and humour. It showed that danger and fear are the least of the concerns of the CMHT.

On a final note, I will end with a criticism that was raised by audience members with personal experience of mental health services: namely that the episode was somewhat naive and unrealistic. Audience members had received far worse experiences of mental health care, or had been able to deliver a far worse service due to cutbacks. It was acknowledged by the film makers that Speedwell CMHT had a ring-fenced budget, so had not been under the same constraints and workload other CMHT’s they’d liaised with had.

It was also highlighted that a lot of the difficulties patients needed help with were practical, and that these needs were not being met. The patients were unable to deal with these matters themselves and therefore they were stuck in difficult circumstances. Examples were the bedbugs which did actually exist in Tamara’s flat. It was not a delusional belief (though its extent may have been) and dealing with that practical problem may have lessened her delusional symptoms. This and her use of amphetamines may also have been the way she managed the immense sorrow of losing her children. Lloyd appeared to be using alcohol to numb his pain.

With a series planned over two years and filmed over twelve months, much footage will have ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a shame, however, that the close relationship between medical help and social support, and the parts played by talking therapies and thereapeutic activities, were overlooked completely in this preview episode.

Nor was the 9% reduction in inpatient beds in the past 2 years mentioned.  Nor were the terrible cuts to community mental health services mentioned.

On the other hand, as Madeliene Long, SLaM chair said:

“Despite it affecting so many people, mental illness is still poorly understood. The stigma and discrimination that people face can make their mental health even worse and can prevent them from seeking help. So it’s really important that we do everything we can to raise awareness, challenge stereotypes and promote the facts about mental health. I’m really pleased that we have been able to work with Channel 4 and The Garden Productions on such an ambitious project which sets out to do exactly that.”

As executive producer Amy Flanagan said,

“Many of these patients had lived long lives with no history of mental illness. It could happen to our parents, to us.”

And, if it does happen to us or someone we know, programmes such as these will mean it feels a little less alien and a little more a part of everyday life.



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Media coverage:

  • Channel 4 press release about Bedlam
    • Anxiety (Episode 1/4) – 9pm Thursday 31st October – “It’s a condition every one of us experiences from time to time, but imagine if one day you woke up and found your anxiety had spiralled completely out of control.”
    • Crisis (Episode 2/4) – 9pm Thursday 7th November – “At Lambeth Hospital in south London, the Trust has pioneered the use of short-stay emergency wards for patients in crisis. It’s effectively run like A&E but for those with mental illness.”
    • Psychosis (Episode 3/4) – 9pm Thursday 14th November – “In this episode we explore the world of the mentally ill who live in the community.”
    • Breakdown (Episode 4/4) – 9pm Thursday 21st November – “In the final episode of Bedlam, cameras gain access to a psychiatric ward for over 65s at the South London and Maudsley (SLaM).”


South London & Maudsley NHS Trust:


People involved:

  • Dan Charlton – Head off communications & media at SLaM (twitter @Dan_Charlton1)
  • Dr Tom Werner (twitter @TellDrTom) – psychiatrist & CBT therapist – website





Related coverage:



Adjust your medication

1 Oct
Damien Hirst - Pharmacy (1992)

Damien Hirst – Pharmacy (1992)


Oops! I appear to have hit the “publish” button rather than “save” and I don’t know how to reverse that. So anyway, I’m in the process of writing a blog post on this topic – Cameron’s “nuts” comment, Pickles’ “advice” to “adjust your medication”, comedy and the use of language around mental health problems. Which will appear at some point … once the ideas have percolated through! 



web links 5.




Mainstream media:


Additional links:

  • Damien Hirst Pharmacy (1992)
  • Eric Pickles‘s website – MP for Brentwood and Ongar and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (twitter @ericpickles)
  • Teresa Cooper
    • No 2 Abuse“Teresa Cooper’s No2abuse covers news and articles about Kendall House children’s home and the injustices to children and families” (twitter @no2abuse, @teresacooper)
    • Cooper’s video (sound only) of her altercation with Eric Pickles, which she posted on YouTube on 14th September




26 Aug

Talking potatoes Family Superfoods

You know the first thing friends from the psychiatric ward ask when we bump into each other? “Have you been back in since?” We just want to stay out. Our ward wouldn’t pass the “friends & family test”: going back to that place is seen as the worst thing that could happen. “Hi! How you doing? Been back in? “No. You?” “No, thank goodness. What’ve you been up to?” “Doing what I need to do to stay out.” “Me too.”

Last night at a cashpoint, a tall young woman approached me. “Got any spare change? My benefits were stopped. I’ve got no food or electricity.” She looked into my eyes, from eye to eye, imploring. “I’ve got no money. My benefits were stopped.” Hang on … We looked again and recognised each other from the ward. Back then, she was so vulnerable, so easily led, so naive. Just a teenager. She’d been in for 18 months.

“Are you still with the community mental health team?” I asked? Last time I’d seen her, she’d been there with her mum, waiting in the waiting room for an appointment. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s make an appointment with the benefits adviser. She’s really good. She’ll help with your benefits. They’re stopping them for the least little thing at the moment. Maybe she can get you help with a loan or a grant or something.” She looked around. “How’s your mum? Is she okay?” “I don’t know. We had an argument. We don’t speak any more. Do you have any spare change?”

“What would you like me to buy you?” I asked her. The cashpoint was outside a supermarket. “I was just going into the shop. Come with me and choose something nice to eat.” She shifted from foot to foot, looked down, looked up into my eyes again. “I just need cash. I’ve got no electricity or food at home. Can you give me some cash?”

“Come back to my house then.” I lived just round the corner. “I’ll cook you dinner. What would you like?” “No thanks. I just want money. Have you got any spare change?” Her skin was bad. She’d cut her hair short. Her glow was gone. She kept looking around behind my head, shifting from foot to foot.

In hospital, she’d been beautiful, naive and full of enthusiasm. She wanted to be a doctor. Or a model. Or both. She had no street smarts or guile. Just an enormous smile.

As a girl, she’d had an argument with her bullying brother one night and had run away from home. She’d been placed in a hostel, a safe place for vulnerable young people to stay. In the hostel, she’d been sexually assaulted by another resident. The mutual friend she’d confided in hadn’t believed her. Had blamed her. She hadn’t told anyone else about the assault. She was young and naive and hadn’t known how to deal with it. She’d kept living at the hostel. With her attacker. Who’d come back for more.

She’d stopped eating when her food started talking to her; when she could see little mouths in the baked beans speaking to her. When she’d become so skinny people noticed, she’d told them about the little mouths in the baked beans. She hadn’t told them about the assaults. It takes time and trust to build up to telling someone something like that. And she hadn’t had that.

She’d been taken from the hostel to the psychiatric hospital. They’d given her drugs for the little mouths in the baked beans; for the food that was speaking to her. They’d kept giving her more drugs and more drugs till she’d told them the food wasn’t talking to her any more and had put on weight.

When I met her on ward, she’d been there for 18 months. She hadn’t had any talking therapy. Just drugs. She hadn’t had any help to prepare for life outside the ward. Just weekly group sessions with the occupational therapists where we painted our toenails or tasted smoothies. But at least she wasn’t skinny any more.

When I met her on ward, she was so sweet and helpless that everyone was protective and did stuff for her. I encouraged her to learn to do things for herself: she’d need that when she got out; or at least the confidence to believe she could learn to do things for herself.

One day, she asked me to put on false eyelashes for her. Instead, I taught her how to do it herself. It took the whole evening. But she did it. Next day, she came back & showed me she’d done it herself. They weren’t on quite straight, but she was so pleased and proud. I was too. False eyelashes rock. She looked fabulous on the outside, with her dramatic eye make-up; and she felt fabulous on the inside, with her sense of achievement.

Next day, she told me about the assaults. She told me about her life and how she’d ended up on ward. She told me she was due for discharge soon. She said she’d started to see the little mouths in the baked beans again.

I didn’t know what to do. My mind was blown by that place, by what they’d done to me there. It was too big for me to process. Hearing her disclosure scorched my brain as I listened. All I could think of to do was to tell her to tell the nurses.

She told the nurses about the little mouths in the baked beans. But not about the assaults. She still hadn’t talked about those. They increased the drugs dose to make the little mouths in the baked beans go away again. She was discharged shortly afterwards and placed in a shared flat with a stranger. After 18 months on ward. And still a teenager. She didn’t know how to wash her clothes, cook, or budget. She couldn’t even keep her room on ward tidy.

Looking at her last night, I wondered whether, all these years later, she’s had any help to process the sexual assaults. Any help with the voices. Any help with managing her life. I wondered if it mattered. Or if drugs were enough. I couldn’t tell how she was. I only knew that she was different. I only knew that I held both her hands and squeezed them as I looked into her eyes, and hugged her and hugged her, then saw her slowly walk away.

And, of course, we both knew – because it’s the first thing we ask when we meet a ward friend – that we hadn’t been back in since.

So tomorrow I’ll drop a note to CMHT asking them to check up on her. She’s too vulnerable to be begging at cashpoints. I don’t know what else to do for the best.


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Links to related websites:

  • My Storify story of tweets – Cashpoint
  • A rather creepy video of talking food (1 min) used to promote TV show Family Supercooks, an initiative of the Food Standards Agency and the Good Food Channel
  • Eleanor Longden: The voices in my head (14 mins) – her recent fascinating and inspiring TED talk



Pill shaming, Giles Fraser and happy pills

10 Aug
Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

What’s hot and what’s not in media land? Fashions ebb and flow. Mental health stories come in and out of the spotlight. Recently, the  supposed psychiatrist vs psychologist war has been stoked. This past week, we’ve had various pundits rehashing the old, old story that mental illness doesn’t really exist. Today, it was the turn of Giles Fraser to spin this line, having made the same case on BBC Radio 4’s debate show the Moral Maze.

Fr Giles has had what I hope will turn out to be an education by twitter’s expert’s by experience and experts by profession. I’ve been commenting on twitter today. Various writers have put it far better than I could, so I’ll let their words speak for me by picking what I consider to be three of the best rebuttals:

Many others have written excellent pieces and all the relevant links I’ve come across are also linked below. Enjoy.



web links 5.






Mainstream media (pill shaming):

  • Psychiatrists: the drug pushers

    Guardian newspaperWill Self  – “Is the current epidemic of depression and hyperactivity the result of disease-mongering by the psychiatric profession and big pharma? Does psychiatry have any credibility left at all?” (3rd August)

  • The Moral Maze – The Pursuit of Happiness

    BBC Radio 4 – “As a nation we have a reputation for being phlegmatic, stiff upper-lipped types. The reality, it seems, could hardly be further from that caricature. When it comes to anxiety and depression, we’re a nation of pill poppers.” Debate chaired by Michael Buerk with Claire Fox, Anne McElvoy, Kenan Malik and Giles Fraser, and witnesses David Pearce (World Transhumanist Association / Humanity Plus), Alison Murdoch (Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom) Oliver James (clinical psychologist and author) and Mark Williamson (Action for Happiness) (7th August)

  • Taking pills for unhappiness reinforces the idea that being sad is not human

    Guardian newspaper – Giles Fraser “If you have a terrible job or home life, being unhappy is hardly inappropriate. Pathologising it can only make everything worse.” (9th August) (twitter: @giles_fraser)


Rebuttals – mainstream media:

  1. Letters – Psychiatry, drugs and the future of mental healthcare

    Guardian newspaper (rebuttals to the Will Self piece) (7th August)

  2. Depression is not the same as “being sad”, Giles Fraser

    New StatesmanGlosswitch (twitter: @glosswitch) – “Casual “let’s not pathologise sadness” musings don’t contribute much to the debate about medication for depression. I’m writing this post to dispel a few myths about depression and the use of medication. I should mention, however, that I’m none of the following: psychiatrist, psychologist, pharmacist, biologist, philosopher, renowned expert in happiness and the inner workings of every human soul. That said, neither is Giles Fraser, the Guardian’s Loose Canon, but he hasn’t let that stop him.” (10th August)

  3. Depression is more than simple unhappiness

    Guardian newspaper – Margaret McCartney (twitter: @mgtmccartney) – “Antidepressants may be overprescribed, but as a GP I know the solution is not to minimise the experience of this condition.” (12th August)

  4. We don’t know if antidepressants work, so stop bashing them 

    Guardian newspaper, SciencePete Etchells (twitter: @petetchells) – “It’s a difficult debate, because it is so often emotionally charged on both sides. The best thing that we can do is to look at the data for answers.” (15th August) – An examination of scientific studies into anti-depressant use, including the 2 main ones that say they do and do not work.


Rebuttals – blogosphere:

  1. My tweets (Storify)
  2. Doctor, Doctor… Pt 2

    Tania Browne blog (twitter: @CherryMakes) –“I read an article today that shows the stigma of mental health that hinders people seeking help isn’t going to go away any time soon. Speaking in The Guardian’s Comment section, Giles Fraser suggested that we may be too happy just to pop to the doc and get some jolly old pills to cheer us up when sadness is a very normal side of the human condition.” (10th August)

  3. For Giles Fraser, ignorance truly is bliss

    The Dirty Ho blog (twitter: @the_dirty_ho) – “In his recent article Giles Fraser allows a valid underlying point to be undermined by his profound lack of understanding of depression.”) (10th August)

  4. In the interests of clarity, Giles Fraser should exercise the right to reply

    The Dirty Ho blog (twitter: @the_dirty_ho) (11th August)

  5. Response to Giles Fraser’s Latest Article on Depression

    Elliot Hollingsworth blog (twitter: @ElliotHollings) – “I have a lot of time for Giles Fraser. However his latest article in the Guardian’s Comment is Free seems fairly lax on the facts and also on the difference between normal sadness and the mental illness, depression.” (10th August)

  6. Giles Fraser and mental health: When the Church fails at being a church, when the spiritual let down spirituality

    by Heathen Hub blog (twitter: @gurdur) (10th August)

  7. Common Misconceptions About Depression

    A Hot Bath Won’t Cure It blog (twitter: @chloemiriam) -– BINGO! – “In rebuttal to Giles Fraser’s poorly argued piece on anti depressants and ADHD medication, which may have hit ‘common misconceptions about depression BINGO!”  I am inspired to reply in a somewhat tired and mixed up manner.” (10th August)

  8. Dear Giles Fraser, Depression and Unhappiness are NOT the Same

    Gibbs Gubbins blog (twitter: @msjenmac) (10th August)

  9. Depression, Anti-Psychiatry and Christianity

    Los the Skald blog (twitter: @lostheskald) – “In his Guardian column today, Fr. Giles Fraser presents an argument which, has, in various guises, been with us since at least the 1960s: that mental illness, and specifically depression, is the ‘pathologisation of sadness’, and that biochemical treatments for depression are an example of ‘the scientists [being] called in to reinforce generally conservative norms of appropriate behaviour’. This post responds to his article by assessing the ‘anti-psychiatry’ tradition within which it falls, discussing some differences between sadness and depression, examining this difference in the Old Testament, and suggesting a Christian response to mental illness based on the stories of healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus in the Gospels.” (10th August)

  10. The Continuum Concept – why your sadness is not my depression

    Mental Health Cop (twitter: @MentalHealthCop) – “I recently read the piece you are about to read – a service user’s reaction to a recent media piece – and was totally blown away …” Reblogged piece, plus introduction (11th August)

  11. My “peculiar reaction” to Giles Fraser’s thoughts on anti-depressants

    Nurture My Baby blog (twitter: @nurturemybaby) (10th August)

  12. The continuum concept: why your sadness is not my depression

    Purple Pursuasion blog (twitter: @bipolar blogger) – “Modern medicine is widely held to be A Good Thing. It is allowing us to live longer, healthier lives than at any other point in human history. The media loves the story of a scientific breakthrough and the promise of yet more astounding treatments in years to come, whether through improved surgical techniques, gene therapy or new, more effective drug treatments.Unless, that is, we’re talking about the modern medicine of psychiatry. Suddenly, the ground shifts and medication is viewed with suspicion, even disgust. Antidepressants become “happy pills”; using drugs as directed by a doctor is described as being “hooked” or “addicted.” (10th August)

  13. Depression is not Being a Bit Sad

    A Reflex Anglican blog by Eileen Fitzroy Russell (9th August)

  14. Sadness and Depression – NOT the same thing

    Ruby Wax‘s website (12th August)

  15. Plaster of paris on a broken leg reinforces the idea that having a broken limb is not human

    Ruth Stirton blog (twitter: @RuthStirton) – “Giles Fraser misses the point. His entire comment is premised on the idea that being sad, and having clinical depression are on the same spectrum. Of course clinical depression can be solved with diet and exercise, because we all know that those things make us feel better if we’re having a sad day. No. Wrong. Clinical depression is a different thing entirely.” (10th August)

  16. Forgive him father, for he knows not what he does

    The Dirty Ho blog (twitter: @thedirtyho) (14th August)


Older pieces – mainstream media:

  • Britain – the Prozac Nation? Not So Fast

    Discover Magazine – by Neuroskeptic (twitter: @neuro_skeptic) – “The media coverage has been predictable with lots of scary, context-free statistics, and boilerplate quotes from the usual suspects. No doubt tomorrow we’ll see a selection of moralistic op-eds about this. But not one of the many nigh-identical articles provided a link to the original data, or even a useful description of where one might find it. After contacting one of the NHS organizations named as the source, I managed to track the numbers down.” (December 2011)


Older pieces – blogosphere:



  • Depression

    Royal College of Psychiatrists

  • Resources for churches

    Time to Change – “We aim to encourage organisations from all sectors and communities to challenge stigma and discrimination. One example of this is work that the Church of England have done to get church congregations talking about mental health. The Revd Eva McIntyre has produced a web resource providing ideas and resources for churches to plan worship on the theme of mental health.”



Let’s talk about poo! It’s tweet chat time …

28 Jul

Keep calm and poo with pride




Here’s the transcript & fab wordcloud from the tweet chat on 1st August – patients & nurses all talking about poo!


This Thursday 1st August at 8pm, We Nurses will be hosting a tweet chat about constipation problems, at my suggestion. Here’s my earlier blog on constipation induced by psychiatric medication, including 25 tips you can try for yourself. It is my most read blog piece ever. I guess that makes me some sort of Poo Queen. Hmm …

However, if it gets people talking about an important but often overlooked or covered up topic, that’s all to the good. Let’s break the taboo about poo and make a date in our diaries for this Thursday’s poo chat!


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Background reading:

The Bristol stool tart cake!

The Bristol stool tart cake!


Additional information on constipation: