Shaun on why the medicalisation of symptoms like hearing voices can be unhelpful and the importance to mental health recovery of having someone who believes in you.
- What brought you /how did you come into contact with mental health services?
There wasn’t a particular thing or event that led to me using services; it was more a culmination of life events and experiences that eventually led to me being unable to cope.
I’d had quite a difficult and traumatic childhood and was very unhappy growing up. I’d heard voices since being 8 years old but it wasn’t a problem for me, the voices were generally friendly and even strangely comforting at times.
I went through life believing I was different from everyone else, not better just different. I had a strange feeling that’s hard to describe, a feeling that someone was looking out for me and that my life was mapped out already.
But again these unusual thoughts weren’t a problem for me.
In my mid-twenties after my son was born, I began working a lot of hours and found myself under an increasing amount of stress. My marriage was falling apart and I’d started drinking too much to try and cope.
Around this time the voices and unusual thoughts changed and became very dark. The voices became highly critical of me, constantly belittling me and telling me how worthless I was.
The thoughts I had changed from me feeling protected to feelings of persecution, I thought everyone was spying on me. I couldn’t take anything at face value. Everything had to have reason or meaning and I became totally preoccupied trying to make connections between things.
Things came to a head and I was admitted to hospital and subsequently sectioned.
This was my first ever contact with psychiatric services, that hospital admission went on to last for three years and my life changed beyond recognition.
- What is/was your experience of mental health services?
A mixed bag really, I felt at times I was treated quite badly but other times I was treated with a great deal of compassion.
I’m a tall stocky guy and with the diagnosis I was given it’s a double whammy when it comes to stigma. I think unfortunately at times people went with the stereotypes of mental illness and were too quick to medicate me with rapid tranquilisation if I became distressed, that left me with some very bad memories.
My overall feeling through all those years in hospital was fear, absolutely terrifying fear. I think people struggled to grasp that an 18 stone, 6 foot 3 man was so frightened.
Everything that was real and happening to me was questioned, I was told the voices that I hear are not there…but I could still hear them.
The things that I can see aren’t really there…but I could still see them.
I was unable to trust any of my senses anymore, that’s an incredibly distressing feeling that I don’t think words can do justice to.
All that said though, I met some wonderful caring people within our services doing a fantastic job.
Staff from all professions, and I include those not in a direct ‘caring’ role such as housekeepers and admin staff
It’s funny how little things mean so much when things get so bad.
I remember that if I wanted to access my money I had to go to the cashier’s window with a signed note giving me permission to have a couple of quid (a totally humiliating experience). But the woman behind the counter used to say “hi Shaun, how’s things” as I approached then proceeded to natter to me about all sorts of random irrelevant things. Totally oblivious to the fact I have a mental illness.
In a world full of madness, that made me feel normal, I was just someone like everyone else, even if only for a few minutes.
I actually bumped into her about 10 years later; she remembered my name and asked me how I was, just like normal.
One of the amazing things on the wards was meeting fellow service users who offer so much support to others in a similar position…a sort of informal peer support.
Far more counselling went off in the smoke room than anywhere else in the hospital!
People in turmoil themselves but still had time to help those around them, people who were sharing a terrible moment in time together.
The hospital admission was a very dark time for me, unfortunately the medicalization of my symptoms and experiences didn’t help.
I can look back and see I certainly needed intervention, without it I can honestly say I wouldn’t be writing this article now. But my own view is that we are sometimes too reliant on medical models of illness and treatment with drug therapy. I don’t blame the staff for that, I appreciate it’s the way the system is set up at the moment.
For me gaining a greater understanding of my experiences and their origins has been the key to my recovery.
In the community there have been some key people I have come across who helped me rebuild my life and take control of the experiences I have. Enabling me to live alongside the ‘symptoms’ instead of trying to eradicate them.
- (a) What aspects of your life were affected by contact with mental health services? (b) And how were they affected?
After a long admission I’d become institutionalised, it took a long time to readjust to living on my own. I’d become used to being told when I could eat, when I could go out, all of the normal things we take for granted.
I left hospital with no job; no home and my marriage had ended.
I began to experience first-hand the stigma and discrimination that people with a mental health diagnosis suffer, facing problems gaining access to my son and huge issues finding accommodation.
Quickly I realised that the symptoms were only 10% of the problems I had to overcome; the social factors play a huge part in a person’s recovery.
- What projects, or work, are you involved in today?
I feel I’ve got my life back on track; I did a course of study with the Open Uni and gained a BSc hons degree in I.T. Doing that helped give me confidence to think about getting back into work.
With that in mind I started volunteering around SHSC in several different settings.
I found a great mentor who encouraged me and helped me to focus on things that I am good at. He highlighted that I had a lot to offer and really helped me to begin to look at the strengths I had and how I could best use them.
Voluntary work helped me get something back on my C.V and enabled me to start applying for paid work.
I’m now in paid employment again, with SHSC, working as a recovery tutor within our recovery education unit. I genuinely don’t know if I’d have been able to get here without the kindness and the unwavering belief shown in my abilities that my mentor held for me.
Not to forget the boundless and infectious enthusiasm my mentor at user support and employment services had as she helped me along this journey.
It’s a job I really enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to try and influence our services by spreading the word about recovery approaches and values.
We run a range of recovery courses, short courses, online courses and postgraduate study for staff, service users and carers.
I also do some work with other groups such as the paranoia network, speaking at conferences and helping with the delivery of workshops and training.
I’ve gone back to Uni and have just finished my first year of studying towards a master’s degree in psychosocial interventions.
- What is your proudest/main achievement?
Probably my next one, then the one after that! I’ve experienced so much and been written off by so many people that I see everything I do as a proud achievement.
I was recently asked to deliver the opening key note speech at a 10th anniversary conference, which was a really proud moment.
Often the little things mean the most to me though and give me the greatest satisfaction. I suppose it’s just being able to be myself again.
- Is there anyone in mental health you particularly admire?
There are several people that have been a huge influence on my life personally. I’m not going to name them as I wouldn’t want to embarrass them; they know who they are though.
People who have taken the time to get to know me, rather than the symptoms I have, those are the people who have really had such an impact on my recovery.
There are some wonderful people out there doing such a fantastic job.
I have a few friends who I’ve met through using services too who inspire me, people who really have been rock bottom but have managed to bounce back. The resilience of us as human beings never ceases to amaze me.
- Is there anything else you’d like to say?
If my experiences have taught me one thing it is that we should never lose hope.
People believing in me has been a recurrent theme in my recovery and at times when I have lost any hope people have carried it for me, that’s been so important.
During that 3 year admission I was fortunate to have the same support worker all the way through. Someone who always had faith in me, even at my lowest ebb she always believed things would get better for me. I didn’t believe her, but she was right and I still think back to her words when things become difficult for me now.
Never ever give up hope, no matter how dark and how bad things become, there is always a way back.
If anyone is interested in attending one of our recovery courses please get in touch.