It was a Friday night in January and I was sat in a police cell with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, my shoes sitting outside the door and my belongings locked away. Was I caught stealing? No. Drunk and disorderly? No. I was in a mental health crisis and a risk to myself and only myself. There was no reason for me to be sat in a cold, dingy cell other than lack of hospital beds and ‘places of safety’.
At the time I was living on the border of Oxfordshire, if relocating to Wales taught me anything, it taught me that there really is a postcode lottery when it comes to mental health care. I feel the care and treatment I received in Oxfordshire was appalling. I had been frequently contacting my CMHT in crisis for months prior to this night. I had spent some time in hospital from the August-September after I had taken an overdose and I was discharged from hospital with no support and the reason for my discharge was not an improvement in my presentation but that they did not feel an admission was appropriate. I was studying for A levels at the time and I battled my way through the Autumn term. I was addicted to laxatives, very low in mood, restricting my intake, full of self hatred. I was in such a dark, lonely place. There would be times that I would miss my entire lesson sat in the bathroom in agonising pain from taking an enormous amount of laxatives. There were college days missed because I couldn’t get dressed due to horrendous body image. I would self harm several times a day just to ‘get through’. I began overdosing on an over the counter medication because it had a herbal base, it would leave me in a dreamy state where I would feel as if I were floating and the walls would move. I couldn’t tell the difference between what was a dream and what was reality. Sometimes the tablets would put me in a deep sleep for 1-2 days. I used it to escape because my mental illness was consuming me and my CMHT were letting me down hugely. On one occasion I phoned crisis team and was told that my psychiatrist had said that crisis team should not engage with me, imagine being told that when you are in crisis! In comparison to my team in Wales, the care I received back in Oxfordshire was shocking.
Back to January. I turned up to see my care coordinator from the CMHT, I was in a bad state, shaking and crying. I felt so done with fighting my battle and I actually got the guts to speak up and tell my care coordinator how bad things were. Her response? She mimicked my voice, repeated what I said back to me and then laughed. I was shocked, distraught and so I walked out. There was no point in me sitting there when she clearly was not going to help me.
The next day I went into college and told the college nurse how I was feeling, it was my last chance to get help, if she had not taken me seriously I do not know whether I would be sat here writing this now. The nurse followed the college policy and phoned the police, they detained me under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. This Section gives the police the power to take you to a ‘place of safety’ where you can be held for up to 72 hours. Often ‘a place of safety’ is a room in a psychiatric hospital, it will usually have a bed, a chair and a bathroom to the side of the room, a mental health nurse will usually sit with you until a Mental Health Act assessment can take place. On this occasion I was taken to a place of safety and agreed to a voluntary admission on an acute psychiatric ward.
Two weeks later, I was worried that I was getting fat because I could no longer spend hours a day on a cross trainer and I had no access to laxatives. My eating disorder was screaming at me and so I asked to leave the hospital and the staff said yes. I was not at all well, I came home and doubled my ‘usual’ dose of laxatives which resulted in nights spent vomiting and passing out from pain on top of the obvious side effect of overdosing on laxatives.
It was only days later when I was sat in the nurse’s room waiting for the police to arrive again. I realised my mistake in leaving the hospital and I was willing to go back. When I told the police this, they decided not to detain me under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act but instead they would contact the ward and my mental health team and try to arrange another voluntary admission. They were told that they could not do this which left them with no option but to detain me under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. They then proceeded to contact various hospitals with ‘places of safety’ but were unsuccessful in finding an available place. I remember when they broke the news to me that there was no option but to take me back to the police station. I remember grabbing the back of my head with my hands, curling up into a ball and sobbing partly with fear and partly with shame. I was an A grade student being marched through college with policemen to head off to a police cell, I felt so ashamed that I tried to hide my face with my hair and hands in an attempt not to be recognised by other students.
We arrived at the police station, and I was taken through to be checked in by the custody sergeant. I will never forget the fear and anxiety that I felt at that moment. Seeing the thick blue line and the signs telling me not to step beyond them, I was so afraid of being told off that I carefully put my feet up to the line. The sergeant asked me lots of questions but being quietly spoken he could not always hear my answer, he shouted at me to step forwards, which meant crossing the line. I was so frightened that I was doing things wrong.
I was shown to my cell and told to leave my shoes outside. Then I was strip searched. I cried the whole way through it, the officers were lovely and understanding but there is nothing that can make that experience okay. Admittedly I did have razor blades and laxatives hidden in my socks. After the strip search, the officers got me blankets, a hot drink and a book and an officer sat with me all night. I can not fault the police, it was not their fault that I ended up in a police cell and they were not happy with the hospital that this situation had happened. The police made sure I was safe and comfortable and really looked after me. However, this did not make the experience okay. It was a Friday night, if you have ever spent a Friday night in A&E then you have experienced an ounce of what I experienced that night. In my mental state I needed to be somewhere calm and relaxed but instead all I could hear were drunk criminals kicking off and shouting whilst being restrained. It was a night that I will never, ever forget. In the early hours of the morning I was assessed and then admitted to the acute psychiatric ward. If they would have admitted me when the police first phoned them then it would have saved a lot of painful, scary memories and I would not have had to experience something that no innocent, law abiding individual should experience.
I think that it is not acceptable for someone in a mental health crisis to be taken to a police cell, I was a risk to only myself. There would never be an occasion where someone who is physically unwell would be taken to a police cell due to lack of beds, so why is this allowed to happen with mental health?
I think it is important to also look at this from another angle. This was a Friday night, a busy night for the police and I was taking up a cell and an officer. It is the police’s responsibility to deal with criminals, they probably needed that cell and they definitely needed that officer and it is the mental health teams responsibility to provide care for their patients.