Ian Callaghan is the National Service User Lead for a recovery and outcomes-focused initiative called My Shared Pathway for people in secure services, which aims to improve collaboration between service users, those that provide care and commissioners and improve the experience of service users while in secure care. Since being discharged from a secure hospital himself two years ago, Ian has also been campaigning with Rethink Mental Illness to help the voices of people with mental health problems be heard more clearly. Ian is passionate about improving care for people with mental health problems and is delighted to have been asked to write this guest blog...
Last week Channel 4 news ran a series of reports to mark the first same-sex marriages taking place in Britain. Reporters visited people in some of the countries where being gay is still illegal and in some places even punishable by death. There was news of persecution in Russia and a remarkable interview with a gay Muslim drag queen. I was so struck by how brave some people were about speaking out about something that could have such awful consequences. Yet they spoke up out of a sincere conviction that by doing so they might help others and remain true to themselves. People such as these paved the way in this country for people like me to more easily say ‘I’m gay’.
I’ve also recently met someone equally as brave as those in the Channel 4 reports, namely Aimee the author of this blog. To be so candid, honest and frank about such personal difficulties is quite remarkable. The way in which Aimee writes about her life, her thoughts, her feelings, her experiences and her relationships is truly amazing. I could hardly believe that her blog has had over 40,000 hits – I only wish I’d discovered it before!
Aimee and I met last month at the National Service User Awards for which I was a judge. Aimee has blogged about the day and posted some photos from what was a very special occasion. Aimee was a finalist in the Outstanding Service User category and I only wish more than one person could have won the Award as she truly would have deserved it. I’m sure if the Awards had been voted for by the public, Aimee would have won hands down – there would have been votes from thousands of people so grateful for her dedication to myth-busting and truth-telling. Warts and all, Aimee describes a life that is complicated and challenging, but definitely not disordered.
By contrast, I’m really not so brave. After 25 years of living with bipolar disorder and exacerbating ‘personality traits’ (I was once told to stick to bipolar as a diagnosis rather than personality disorder: an example of the extra stigma associated with a diagnosis of personality disorder) I still find it difficult to talk about my mental health in any way even approaching the way Aimee talks about hers. True, celebrities coming out has having mental health problems (particularly bipolar) has helped, but I think there’s a difference between being aware and really understanding what it’s like. I still prefer to come out as gay than come out as having a ‘severe mental illness’ – let alone a probable personality disorder.Then, there’s the issue of having been a patient in a secure unit. If the above is difficult to tell anyone, then having been detained in a secure unit for nearly 5 years is an even more difficult story to tell. But it’s one that again, Aimee doesn’t shy away from. And neither do I quite so much as I used to, partly because with the passage of time (I’ve been discharged over 2 years now) things gain a different perspective and importance. I’m really fortunate that I’ve now got the opportunity to spend time trying to improve the secure care system – I’m pleased to say things have certainly improved since my admission in 2007, but we’ve still a long way to go before we have a secure care system that is truly responsive to the needs of the people in it.
If what I do helps, and I very much hope it does, I’m absolutely certain that what Aimee and other brave people like her do, is having a greater effect. I share bits of my story – I remember my trepidation when I first blogged about secure care for Rethink Mental Illness, worrying that my family and friends might think that I’d been too ‘open’ about my recent past – but then it’s easy to stand up in front of a group of people from secure care and tell them I’ve been there too. We’ve been thinking in the Recovery and Outcomes Groups that I help organize about what more support people might benefit from before discharge from hospital. I know I’d certainly have liked to have had more support thinking about what I tell people about where I’ve been, how to make new friends, how to explain to old ones and how to manage the times when you just have to say something about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing for the past five years.
But Aimee’s been bravely doing that for the past year – and I’m absolutely certain that people less brave, like me, have benefitted enormously from knowing they’re not alone, that others have extreme difficulties in their lives, but manage somehow to live through them. I’m really glad that Aimee speaks so positively about her mum; my mum sadly died while I was in hospital and I don’t think I ever appreciated her as much as Aimee does hers. I think relationships are so important to our recovery. Yes, hell might be other people as some would say, but I do think they can be vital. Mine certainly have been – those in hospital that helped me heal, those outside that helped me believe in myself again and those that helped me find the occupation that I love and which enables me to give something back to people.
And thanks to Aimee and others like her, like those on Channel 4 last week, I’m going to try to be a bit braver. There’s nothing at all wrong with not feeling brave – I’ve spent most of the last five years feeling distinctly very unbrave – but it does feel quite liberating and, as Aimee says in her blog, it can be very therapeutic to be nire open about ourselves with other people. Yes it’s a risk, but it may well be one worth taking.
Ian can be contacted on Twitter