When I was invited to attend LIFI22 I decided to pick four events which had special relevance for me; the first was on architecture, an interest of mine; the second, food, on which I write and overindulge; the fourth is about comedy, something which I am obviously in need of help; and this third offering about mental health, which has affected me probably for all my life but manifested itself in the 1980s when I was in my 30s.
This event was presented as a panel discussion chaired by Bryony Gordon (see feature image); journalist, author and mental health campaigner; with the panel comprising; Luke Ambler, the former Leeds Rhinos Rugby League player and founder of Andy’s Man Club, a suicide prevention organisation; David Harewood MBE, actor and director best known for Homeland and Supergirl: Gail Porter, television personality and presenter as well as Vice-President of The Children’s Trust; and Sarah Hughes, Chief Executive, Centre for Mental Health.
I must start out by saying that this was not as dark as it would suggest, in fact, there was a great deal of humour, which is a bit of a giveaway as to one’s state of mind.
Ms Gordon began by asking each of the panel in turn to describe their mental health issues, which she said was a bit of a misnomer as it is mental ill-health which they were talking about. I don’t propose to go into individual stories too deeply but it became obvious that every one of them had had some form of connection with fellow sufferers from an early age, whether relatives, spouses or close friends, which had had an effect on their wellbeing.
It was the ‘treatment’ and recovery which provided the most incredible stories, but even then there was a similarity between them. When Gail Porter was at an ebb, she told a friend that she was feeling down so going for a coffee at her favourite place. As she was drinking it, a police van pulled up outside and four officers put her into the back and took her to a secure unit where she was sectioned. She was incarcerated for seventeen days and, although not being seen by any medical personnel, given a course of unidentified drugs until she was released with an apology for their having made a mistake and saying that there was nothing wrong with her; still not having seen a doctor. She only found out what the drugs were when she was given a large bag of them to take home with her! She told this story with the humour you would expect, saying that she must have had a fearsome reputation if they thought it would take four burly policemen to get a 5’1″, 8st woman into a police van.
David Harewood was similarly interned but this time in a mental hospital where he was drugged and basically ignored until his release when they had taken effect. He has made a documentary about his condition, ‘Psychosis and Me’, during which time he discovered some alarming facts about the treatment of black men in these institutions. He was able to recover his medical files from the facility which showed that he was given three times the recommended dose of tranquillisers, a practice which he discovered still routinely exists for the suppression of large black males.
Luke Ambler was a little more fortunate in that he remained free but obviously in inner turmoil about the suicide of his brother-in-law which caused him to go off the rails, assaulting a doorman, but then turning his experience into something positive, as have the others, by forming Andy’s Man Club, which now has branches all over the country, dealing with 2,000 men per week who are suicide risks and come for help. He even gets referrals from other health services.
Sarah Hughes has been around mental health patients all her life and used to play with the inmates of a facility when she was a child, her parents being patients there. She had her own meltdown when giving birth to her first child when she was 16 years-of-age. Fortunately the treatment proved somewhat of a success and her second was born with no repetition of the episode. She has now been working in mental health for 30 years.
After a further sharing of experiences the event ended on an upbeat note with Bryony Gordon asking how they now kept their demons at bay. David Harewood said that he throws himself into his work which, although helping, still stresses him out to some extent, as did the thought of appearing on the platform this evening.
Exercise was the method used by the other panelists whether extreme; in the case of Luke Ambler who does Ironman courses where he finds swimming and running help get him into a better place, to the more genteel versions performed by the two women. Gail Porter has a second option which is to sing popular English or American songs out loud but in a broad Scottish accent! I think that I might try the process in reverse by belting out The Proclaimers songs in Yorkshire, “Am gunna be t’man whose wekkin’ up wi’ thee.” All together now.
I was alarmed by something that Sarah Hughes said when summing up, and that is that the NHS is better funded now than it has ever been but the lack of adequate mental healthcare facilities is caused by the shortage of doctors, nurses and ancillary staff. So, should you be thinking of a career in this field, go for it.
I was somewhat surprised that Bryony Gordon didn’t mention her own circumstances, which I know of from reading her columns in the Daily Telegraph over the years, and her contribution to helping those in the same situation. Her modesty becomes her.
All images supplied by LIFI22