Extract from Openmind Issue 114, Mar/Feb 2002
It was 1992 when I first became involved in the mental health system. I got to know a young man who, like me, is Black and has a love of African jazz music. Unlike me, two guards - psychiatric nurses from the local mental health hospital - would accompany him to the jazz club where we met up.
Here, the young man would become totally absorbed in the rhythm of the African beat. His dancing was a sure way of clearing the floor, as he would jump high, throwing his legs and arms in different directions. I wrongly thought his movements were a result of his mental distress. I later found out that they were due to his medication.
This man had been involuntarily detained, not because of mental distress but because of how he expressed his anger....In a short space of time he was transformed into a zombie with little control over his mind or body. Once he had entered the system he was caught in a dangerous and vicious circle: his refusal to cooperate with his captors led to the forceful injection of ever higher doses of medication.
It seems perverse to say 'he was luckier than most', but in a sense he was. He was fortunate to be in a hospital where two members of staff also had an interest in jazz. By accompanying him, the staff members could get their entrance fee subsidised and claim extra pay.
For the patient it provided a rare taste of freedom that helped him to be noticed. Support and campaigning followed: he was released and is now free of medication and proud to use the term 'survivor'.
Unfortunately, this young man's situation is not unique. He is one of many Black people who are detained within the psychiatric system and prescribed medication by staff who allow their own racist stereotypes (such as 'big, Black and dangerous') to affect their thinking, diagnoses and choice of treatment....
I remember clearly in the 1990s reading report after report about racism within the psychiatric system. One such report (in 1993) followed the death of Orville Blackwood on the 28th August 1991, after being sedated and secluded at Broadmoor Hospital. But this was back in the 1990s....Psychiatric services have moved on, haven't they?
Certainly from the 1990s there has been a growing movement for change. Users/survivors, researchers, self-help groups, psychiatrists, managers, doctors, therapists, support staff, social workers etc. have been working at all levels to create a mental health service that is responsive to our needs, respectful of our rights, free from oppressive practices and that has an emphasis on steering people away from prescribed addiction - a service that provides therapeutic care and practical support.
Yet despite this movement for change, I believe that our achievements within this decade have been akin to treading water: we have stopped the service from sinking deeper or getting worse. Yes, there has been some change, some steps forward, but there has also been a sliding backwards....
Do we not have a right to expect a service where:
- armed police are not sent to deal with us; where we are not sprayed with CS gas, dragged off to a police cell (a so-called 'place of safety'); and where the taking away of a person's freedom is regarded as the last resort?
- support is given to the individual, their family, partners and children at an early stage; where an individual in distress feels safe, listened to and empowered?
- issues to do with difficult relationships, homelessness, poor or inadequate housing, poverty, harassment, education, employment, etc. are dealt with sensitively and effectively?
- hospitals are well furnished and tastefully decorated, where we have a choice of a private room or small wards, where there are single- and mixed-sex wards, and where we are welcomed and given clear information on entry?
- the food that we are given is nutritious and takes into account our dietary and cultural needs?
- medication is given as a last resort and instead we are given access to counselling, complimentary therapies and so on?
It is a disgrace that in 2002 Black people within the mental health system are in much the same situation as we were in the 1990s. The difference now is that our situation attracts very little attention.