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Don't cut mental health lifelines

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Are cuts to mental health services getting overlooked in the campaign against NHS closures?

Lucette Davies
4 July 2013

Eastbourne local papers regularly feature articles about the town’s NHS services - but rarely mention cuts in psychiatric services. Eastbourne has lost a total of 20 inpatient beds for mental health patients since 2010. Perhaps, it is because of my own experiences that I notice the lack of interest in psychiatric care.

I was first hospitalized in 1988 at the end of my Masters in Radiation Physics. I knew something was wrong although I did not know what. I was confused, very scared and was not sure what people meant by the word ‘happy’.

By the year 2000 I was getting ready to take on the first flat of my own. I had spent years in hospital and was then in a rehabilitation home. I had not worked since 1988, I had had many courses of ECT, psychosurgery and a frightening amount of medication. I had self-harmed, made suicide attempts and starved myself. I was frightened by the world and life and could not see how I would ever fit into society.

My life remained dysfunctional with many hospital admissions for treatment following self-harm and suicide attempts. It was not until 2006 when I found myself in intensive care after jumping 50ft from my kitchen window that I started being able to see reality.

I knew that I was ill, I knew that no amount of medication would make it better and I knew that unless I did something I would soon kill myself or end up permanently disabled. I had to accept that when (and if) I recovered I would get sent to the Woodlands Mental Health Unit in Hastings. I also knew that it would be of little benefit to me so I asked to go to a therapeutic community.

Eventually I was sent to a small unit in Eastbourne called Lavender Lodge that exists for just 6 women. The house is a hospital but run along the lines of a therapeutic community and treats seriously ill women when traditional psychiatry has been exhausted.  The philosophy behind treatments offered by therapeutic communities is described in this article by Penelope Campling.

The other women I knew at Lavender have all had equally dysfunctional lives. Many of the women were on forensic sections with histories that included acts that endangered others as well as themselves. The distress in the house was enormous but so was the support from a truly dedicated staff team.

I left Lavender Lodge 2 years later in 2009 and decided to settle in Eastbourne.  I finally understood what had gone wrong in my life, I knew I was not entirely to blame and knew what I had got wrong. I didn’t hate myself or feel inadequate. I had gained a belief in myself and had a determination to get a life I would be comfortable with.

The world has looked different since 2009. I feel I have continued to learn since leaving Lavender and my life has changed very much. I have found out what pleases me and decided what I want from life. I am now in a long term relationship and am nearing the end of my NCTJ Diploma in Journalism. Every so often I do something and say something and find myself questioning: “Was that really me? I never would have believed a few years ago I could say/ do that!”

I do still take some medication but it is a fraction of what it used to be, I have not self-harmed for over 4 years and had no hospital admissions since leaving Lavender Lodge. I have not needed any support from community services for over 18 months.

I have now heard that the commissioners are “reviewing the funding of Lavender Lodge”. I am shocked, my treatment at Lavender has shown me what a difference this service can make.

Out of the women I knew there, the majority have made significant improvements to their health. Some women have returned to work, others are maintaining a life with fewer, or no hospital admissions. In my case I feel that the money spent on my two years at Lavender will be saved many times over as I no longer need the support and care that I used to need. The human benefits are vast in terms of the reduction in my own distress and that of the people around me.  My case is not unusual for a woman who has been a patient of Lavender Lodge. In economic terms it does not make sense to me.

Decisions about mental health care should not be based entirely on economic grounds. Mental health affects 1 in 4 people at some point in their lives. It causes enormous distress both to the patient and those around them. It frequently involves very long term care and medication.

In Eastbourne it is clear that the public have a high level of interest about the local NHS services. There is a local campaign group, the Save the DGH campaign, who fight on to prevent any reduction on the District General Hospital services, which have already suffered some serious changes. I fully support the work of the Save the DGH Campaign but I would like them to take on campaigning to protect the psychiatric service as well.

The philosophy behind the type of care that Lavender Lodge offered me was something very different from the traditional psychiatry that I had always been given. I believe that the approach could be useful for many people with mental health conditions and could be far more effective treatment for mental illness. In turn this could reduce distress, save lives and reduce the burden on the NHS.

The Kings Fund’s report Mental Health and the Productivity Challenge looked at ways in which the quality of psychiatric services can be improved while reducing the costs. The report discusses the reduction of unnecessary bed use in acute and secure psychiatric ward. The women who are admitted to Lavender are at a stage where inpatient treatment is essential. The bed spaces in this house are never unnecessary.

At present the Community Psychiatric Services in Eastbourne are minimal. A new centre has opened in Hastings to offer community services and there is talk of something similar opening in Eastbourne. Often psychiatric patients will feel when they are told that they will get community support that this is simply an excuse for giving no support. The NHS is required to make £20bn savings by improving efficiency and the fears are that these savings will have to involve cuts to services.

There is no escaping the fact that for many psychiatric patients there will be times when inpatient care is needed. I do some teaching at Brighton University with the students studying to be mental health nurses. They say that when patients in the community talk about their fears of being admitted to hospital, they know themselves that this has never been less likely due to the lack of beds in the area.

I would love to see the politicians fight for better mental health services, or even talk about it. The media gives it little coverage, with only the odd rare report highlighting the impact of service cuts.

Lavender Lodge showed me a glimpse of a very positive change in mental health care. I would like to see that change being encouraged and it upsets me to hear that they are thinking of stopping it.

Another women who has more recently left Lavender Lodge has given me this statement about how she felt about the house: “Lavender has saved my life, not only has it saved it, it’s given me a life worth living. It is an unusual but fantastic service that helps people get out of the rut that they are in, and begin to live.”

I hope this article may inspire people to find out what is happening for psychiatric patients in their area. I don’t feel Eastbourne is unique, and my story isn’t unique either. Psychiatry needs more of the public to become interested.

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