John Barry Waldron is a mental health nurse at St Andrew’s Healthcare in Essex, and also host of the 'On the Ward' podcast. He is passionate about providing a platform for patients to have their voices heard, even during a global pandemic. Here's an opinion piece he wrote for The Independent.
We know through research we’ve carried out that there is still significant stigma around psychiatric hospitals. In fact, people are twice as likely to fear admission to a mental health hospital than they are to a general hospital. Straitjackets, padded cells and patients catching flies in the corner of the room are images which spring to some people’s minds when I tell them I work in a secure mental health unit. If that is the case, then surely the patients I look after won’t even notice the lockdown we’re all experiencing?
The reality, of course, is very different. For patients detained under the Mental Health Act and currently living within a secure unit, lockdown definitely isn’t “business as usual”.
I have the privilege of working with many brilliant and inspirational patients on a daily basis. People who might find themselves staying in a psychiatric unit because the symptoms of their mental illness have become so debilitating and distressing they need round the clock support.
However, being on a section isn’t a life sentence that sees you sitting in a small room with nothing to do and nobody to talk to – despite what the old myths might have you believe. A section is to mitigate any immediate risks to safety, but then it’s all about focusing on progress and recovery. And in order for people to experience recovery, many different things need to be in place – things that, due to universal lockdown rules, are now being taken away.
Just as somebody with a physical illness might need surgery, medication or physiotherapy to recover, somebody with a mental health condition might need medication, therapy, peer support, family support and the opportunity to grow in independence by, for example, doing their own shopping or getting out for a walk with friends.
During lockdown, many of these things can’t happen. In fact, it can feel to some patients that recovery is almost “on hold”. On a recent episode of our podcast, “Lockdown”, I spoke to one of our patients who was due to have her tribunal hearing next week – where an independent panel of medical professionals and social workers considers if a patient is ready to come off section, and therefore enjoy increased independence. The result of this kind of hearing might see a patient moving out of the hospital environment and into supported accommodation which provides far more independence in which to thrive.
The patient in question told me she feels ready to move on. She knows there are aspects of her mental health she still needs support with to keep herself safe, but she has been able to enjoy more independence recently including shopping and going out on her own.
When all your energy is focused on the goal of independence and living a fulfilling life back in the community, having that taken away, albeit temporarily, can be a big blow. Which is why, as part of the staff team within a secure unit, we have to remain positive, proactive and find new ways to engage patients in activities during lockdown. We have to keep moving forward, whatever that means under the social distancing rules.
Throughout the course of this pandemic I’ve found it is those of us who take our freedom for granted that are really struggling with our new normal. Our life and liberty changed almost overnight, so it’s understandable many of us are finding it difficult to adjust. But I find it really inspiring to hear how patients are dealing with the lockdown, re-igniting hobbies and passions such as song-writing or musicianship to keep focused on recovery and progression.
I’ve seen and heard patients who, thanks to the recovery journey they are currently on and the therapy they have learnt from, have a greater degree of acceptance of the current situation. This doesn’t mean they are any less ambitious, but what it does mean is that they have found the strength within themselves to accept what is out of their control.
Lockdown is difficult for everyone, but it’s incredibly hard for those of us who are looking forward to a renewed independence after many months in hospital. So when I see the strength and resilience shown by some of our patients in response to the current crisis, I believe that is something that we could all learn from."