One mother tells Shelly Berry of her traumatic fight to get her son the help he needs (warning: readers may find this article distressing)
It’s nearly six years since my colleague Anne’s son, Darren, had a traumatic accident that left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Deemed too ill to work with mainstream mental health services, he was told he would be referred to specialist support. He is still waiting for that help.
After about two years of waiting and in a desperate attempt to manage his terrifying flashbacks, Darren began to self-medicate with alcohol. It was shortly after being referred for support around his drinking that he made his first suicide attempt. Anne soon found herself and her son stuck in a revolving door of hospitalisations, discharges, broken promises and further attempts by Darren to end his life.
Anne, who has worked as a therapist, writer and trainer in the field for over 30 years, found herself fighting to have her son’s intent to kill himself taken seriously. Despite previous attempts, suicide notes, and confessing that he wanted to die, Darren soon learned that by lying to assessors, he would be discharged and free to make another attempt in days, if not hours.
“You just need to tell people what they need to hear,” says Anne. After his second visit to the A&E ward at Whipps Cross, Darren was taken to Goodmayes in Ilford, a mental health hospital managed by North East London Foundation Trust (NELFT).
Darren’s mental health deteriorated and he found himself admitted to Goodmayes several times. Anne describes him being received “like a criminal” and the hospital “like a prison”. While there and despite being “under 15-minute observation”, Darren was able to make three serious attempts to kill himself.
Darren was restrained by five members of staff and locked out of his room. Anne struggled to tell me how she found him afterwards, sat on the floor with a blanket over his head, suffering flashbacks, while the staff charged with watching him sat behind him on a chair, rather than offer emotional support. One day, Darren was left to cut his arms with a drinks can while the staff member tasked with observing him obliviously watched television.
Darren is now waiting for a specialist placement to treat his now complex PTSD and alcohol dependency, a referral which, like every other, has been beset by failure to send off the relevant paperwork to the right person, if at all. While Anne’s main concern is her son’s wellbeing, it’s hard to ignore the effect the last few years has had on her. She has had her concerns and complaints ignored or dismissed, nurses refuse her visiting rights, and psychiatrists blithely tell her about the suicide attempts of patients recently discharged while she fights to keep her own son alive.
Anne also describes one incident in Goodmayes when her son was being restrained by four members of staff while she looked on, weeping. “The only thing they could say was ‘he was okay until the mother came’.”
When I ask Anne what the impact has been on herself, she finds it hard to answer. “I am broken. They can’t see that. If I even start to think about one of the suicide attempts, one of the admissions… it’s going to be me too.”
While Anne is able to recall the kind acts of paramedics who gave her extra dressings when Darren was cutting himself, police officers who cuddled him as they led him to safety, and a security guard “with compassion in his eyes” as he offered to clean up her unconscious son’s vomit, it is clear that she needs to see change. There is dismay in the lack of co-ordination between services and their inability to recognise the signs that someone is at high risk of suicide.
“The system does not function because they don’t join the dots,” she explains. Additionally, Anne calls for people like her son to be treated with compassion and understanding.
“I would like people to be seen as a whole person… the fact is he wouldn’t be an addict if he’d had the support he needed. It’s not his fault.”
NELFT declined to comment on this case when I approached them. I can only hope Anne’s simple request does not land on deaf ears, and that our mental health services get the financial support they need to offer the services people like Darren need – and deserve.
The names of the people involved in this story have been changed to protect their identity. Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is advised to attend A&E if worried about their own safety. The NHS advises to call 999 if you or someone you know experiences an acute life-threatening medical or mental health emergency. Many hospitals now have a liaison psychiatry service, which is designed to bridge the gap between physical and mental healthcare. For more information:
If you have been affected by this article, Samaritans’ helpline is available around the clock:
Call 116 123