When I was aged 18, I witnessed first hand how society's approach to mental health wasn't working. I was admitted to Hackney hospital - a psychiatric hospital - and told that I could not leave. On the verge of adulthood, and feeling lost after my girlfriend had left me, I had invested in a spiritual search for guidance. The messages I picked up from the Bible convinced me I had a mission. Seeking to discover what my mission was, I slowly deduced that I was quite possibly an apprentice spy for the British secret service. I was eventually admitted to hospital when I became convinced that I had a gadget in my chest that was being used to control my actions.
Psychiatric hospital was like another world entirely. Queues for the medication trolley punctuated the boredom and general sense of hopelessness. Any resistance to the regime was quashed by forcible restraints and powerful injections. Many friends felt too scared to visit me.
That experience coupled with being given a diagnosis of schizophrenia made me feel like a social outcast. When my parents were told my condition was probably genetically inherited, the die seemed irrevocably cast. Ward rounds felt like elaborate religious rituals conducted by the consultant psychiatrist, with an audience of medical students and student nurses observing, while my insanity was confirmed and long-term drug treatment prophesied. I found the medication made me feel empty and soulless; I could not think past considering my basic needs. The drugs made me physically weaker and affected my hormones so I became impotent.
I was concerned about this. However, to the outside world, because of the mind-numbing effects of the drugs, I was less focussed on my spy and spiritual beliefs. The doctors pronounced that I was responding well to the medication. I was determined to stop taking the tablets and injections as soon as I could find other ways of staying calm and centred.
The majority of fellow patients were revolving-door patients. I myself was told I'd be back. It was true: I was readmitted twice before I managed to escape the role of mentally ill regular customer. But I was luckier than most: as well as my parents visiting me daily, a close friend came back from selling pots and pans to US servicemen in Germany and began visiting me daily too. I started to pick up on her belief that this breakdown, or whatever it was I was having, was something I could get over.
When I was 12 years old, I had witnessed my mother make a strong recovery from a disabling brain haemorrhage, so instinctively I knew that I could turn my life around with the right support. So I decided not to believe in the doctor's wisdom and planned to get a job as soon as I left hospital. While I was still in hospital, I started going to churches and community centres offering to do voluntary work. Although I must have seemed a bit odd, I found many kind people who were willing to give me tasks to do and slowly I started to rebuild some social skills.
When a friend and fellow patient, Celine, took her own life after being heavily over-medicated, it became a turning point for me. It was a Caribbean funeral and hundreds of people turned up for it. It contrasted strongly with the absence of support she had had when she had been alive and hearing abusive voices from her past.
I realised then that I had found a cause that needed no delusions to support it. Like Celine, I had gone through the strange process of being talked to as if I was not there, of professionals trying to suppress my odd and disturbing behaviour with drugs without trying to understand why I was acting as I was. No one seemed willing to think what was it like to walk in my shoes.
We, as a society, were making people madder and maybe I could do something about changing that. What if I could make a different kind of come-back to the psychiatric ward, as a mental health professional? …