What a suicide attempt showed me about mental health and Cambridge
I was given the number of a crisis team, and was told by them that I didn’t need their help
This article contains in-depth discussion of suicide and mental health issues.
On the 28th of November 2015 I tried to kill myself.
My drunken efforts were both anticlimactic and unsuccessful. I was found and stopped by my friends. Desperately worried and themselves not completely sober, they rang 999 and asked for an ambulance. After my best friend had spent more than half an hour on the phone with them, my boyfriend managed to gently coax me out of bed and downstairs so I could go to the hospital.
What greeted me was not an ambulance, it was not paramedics and it certainly wasn’t anyone trained to deal with mental health (or even medical) emergencies – it was six police officers in high-vis jackets and a porter. Emergency services had sent SIX police officers to confront a ‘violent, suicidal female’. A skinny 19-year-old girl who has been known to cry if someone kills an insect in front of her.
So there I am, shivering, sobbing, humiliated, in my pyjamas and now being stared at by; no fewer than 6 police officers, a porter and anyone who happens to walk in through the front gate of my college.
But, importantly, the police hadn’t come straight to me. Not listening to the friend on the phone, who had said where we were, they had gone to the porter’s lodge. There, they demanded the key to my room and stormed across college, porter in tow.
Not only was I not in that room, but the names on the doors were wrong, so six police officers and a porter stormed into my neighbour’s room, where he was peacefully asleep in his bed. Reportedly, he shouted for them to ‘fuck off’ before realising that it wasn’t a group of drunk fellow students crowded into his tiny attic room.
Once the police finally found me, back where they had been told I was in the first place, I agreed to speak with the two female officers in private.
The ‘private room’ they decided to use was walled by a ground floor window that anyone entering college had to walk past. The entire Kate’s-suicide-attempt fanfare stood outside the window and in my eye-line, making me feel like some kind of tragically disappointing animal exhibit in a horrifying nightmare zoo.
Desperately worried I was taking up police time, and increasingly aware of the distress calls they kept receiving over radio, I rapidly assured the officers that I was completely fine, my friends had panicked, we were all drunk and that the last thing I needed was an ambulance. To expedite the process of this situation going away, I also told them I had been taking my medication (I hadn’t).
The police agreed to leave on the condition that I would let someone stay with me overnight.
I screamed at the friends who had only been trying to help. I was humiliated, I was angry, I felt a deep sense of betrayal. They had never meant for things to end this way, but I was hurting and couldn’t appreciate that at the time.
Suicide attempts are embarrassing, they’re awkward, they change the way people around you see you and they frequently change the way that you see yourself. There’s nothing worse than when the disclosure of that information is completely out of your hands before you can even really come to terms with what happened.
I woke up the next morning, still aggressively suicidal and in need of medical attention. After speaking to NHS 111 I refused an ambulance, in favour of a more discreet approach and called a taxi to hospital. In a bitter twist of irony, the shirt I had hastily grabbed on the way out read ‘More Issues Than Vogue’.
At hospital a psychiatrist offered to transfer me to a crisis team so that I could get back to life as normal as quickly as possible. A crisis team is supposed to meet with you face-to-face for a consultation as well as being available 24/7 over the phone so that you always have access to psychiatric care.
My crisis team didn’t do any of this. After one phone call I was told that it seemed like the night before had been an anomaly and that I should be fine to be transferred to a local mental health services.
I was given their contact number (open 1-4pm) and their out-of-hours number (4-8pm). I was distraught. I cried on the phone to the man who insisted that I didn’t need his help. I told him I was worried, I told him that I needed more support right now. He assured me it would be fine. I cried a little bit on the landing outside Wagamama and then returned to my dinner.
In the end, I did have one assessment with a local team. That was December 8th. I have not yet heard a single word following up from that assessment. My GP says that the paperwork from that initial meeting was never filed. I had fallen through the cracks.
Not only was my mental illness telling me I was worthless and invisible, but it seemed like mental health provision in this city wanted me to think the same thing.
Every step of the process of getting help, every GP visit, conversation with different members of hospital staff, therapist and counsellor assessment after assessment was excruciatingly painful. Mental illness at its worst can be crippling, I can struggle to get out of bed, shower and put on clean clothes, but nonetheless have to chase up appointments, attend consultations and explain over and over again what exactly was wrong with me – and to a new person every time.
I gave up. Medication was improving things, slowly, not dramatically and there was nothing left to do but get on with things. That horrible evening at the end of November became an awkward memory, or even a really dark joke told amongst friends.
Then something happened. I attended the Union’s “We Need to Talk about Mental Health” event and one of the speakers urged listeners to ‘demand’ the help that they deserved from a system that is chronically understaffed and underfunded.
After a couple weeks of trying, I have finally seen a CBT therapist and my college nurse has helped to speed up the process of seeing someone at the University Counselling Service. Even with that help, it still took two weeks to arrange an appointment. I waited five weeks for an appointment with a counsellor that the service cancelled because I was seeing a ‘mental health advisor’. Those are two different jobs.
Something has to give.
While I do believe that everyone out there should absolutely demand the standard of care they deserve, I also think it is obscene that this kind of care has to be demanded. How is it that so many institutions and organisations are completely incapable of dealing with the amount of pressure on them? How is an entire human being allowed to be completely forgotten by three different teams of carers? If the UCS know they have to increase waiting times by several weeks in January – why not increase the number of staff available during that time?
Personal, individual, societal change is great. Let’s talk about this more, let’s reduce stigma, let’s encourage other people to seek help when they need it.
But I want more than that. I want a mental healthcare system that does its job. I want a University Counselling Service that can be accessed with wait times that aren’t as long as term times. I want transparent help procedures in colleges. Hell, I want an NHS that doesn’t completely drop any attempts at care 2 weeks after a suicide attempt.
I don’t think those demands are unreasonable.
I also don’t believe I’m alone in feeling like I fell through the cracks of a system stacked against me.
It’s time to change the way we talk about mental health. It’s time to ask for more.