Dear Prime Minister,
I went to A&E for a mental health problem this weekend. I was lucky - I didn't have to wait over four hours to be seen, and I had friends with me to speak for me when I found it too difficult to find words. It is hard to say the words out loud: anorexia, bulimia, I've been self-harming, I've thought about killing myself; harder still when you know you've been on a waiting list just to be assessed for treatment for well over a year. Hearing you report the reluctance of service users in Aldershot to go to A&E with mental health problems as if this was a good thing, though, has made getting those words down on paper easy.
If people don't want to go to A&E with mental health problems, it is not because they are getting help elsewhere. It is because being in A&E with a mental health problem is frequently a distressing, dehumanising and ultimately pointless experience. I can't be the only person who has heard nurses calling me "just another attention seeker" over my head as I vomited into a bowl after a serious paracetamol overdose, or has been told that if I couldn't keep a banana down I should try eating it with cereal, a food I had just admitted to eating entire boxes of only to throw it up.
A psychiatric nurse told me that I was "too sane" to be prescribed a tranquiliser or need a follow up one night when I was brought into A&E having attempted to hang myself, then run half a mile down a country road, barefoot, in January. Unless you are in the most dire straits, there is simply not enough time, not enough money and not enough specialist training for mental health problems.
Recognising that mental illness still carries a stigma is all very well, but the words ring very hollow coming from the leader of this government. Mental health problems are prevalent in the populations that the Conservative and Coalition governments most publicly deride and degrade: prisoners, the homeless, refugees, immigrants, those on benefits.
The Prime Minister acknowledges the stress and misery caused by inequality, division in society, low wages, and a high cost of living - emotions which provide fertile conditions for mental health problems of all varieties to grow and flourish. But her policies do nothing to address these problems, and seem likely even to aggravate them. Reducing stigma would be a fine thing, but surely less important than preventing and treating illnesses which cause so much anguish and distress not just to sufferers but to our friends, families and everyone around us.
It is impossible not to feel stigmatised when you are asked by a tired, harried nurse at the entrance to A&E "what you are here for" and you can't find the words to articulate what the matter is, with no significant physical pain, infection or injury to show for it. Nobody feels like a valued member of society when they wait for hours in a corridor with no chairs left to wait on, only to leave with a phone number on a piece of paper and instructions that I have found impossible to follow due to my mental health issues - my experience at the weekend. Anyone would feel dehumanised if they ended up spending the night in a police cell because there simply are no safe places for them, an experience I know many others have had. The crisis in mental health and in the NHS more widely has been real and urgent and damaging for years to those who come into contact daily with services.
Please listen to us now, and give us more than empty words and insincere sentiment before it is too late.
A service user.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Rethink Mental Illness advice and information service is open 9:30 - 4pm Monday - Friday - 0300 5000 927. They have over 100 factsheets with easy to understand information on a variety of issues related to mental health
- CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is a registered charity, which exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. Call 0800 58 58 58 or visit thecalmzone.net
- The Mix is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41