Please be aware this piece contains references to self-harm and suicide, which some people may find distressing.
I don’t like strange men watching me sleep. Most women wouldn’t – but women in mental health crises often have to deal with it, during the most frightening periods of our lives.
Last September, I was in hospital after a suicide attempt and was placed on one-to-one observation as I was deemed a high risk to myself. This meant that someone was allocated to monitor me at all times. On day two of my admission, that person was a man. I hated knowing that if I took too long in the bathroom (which I was not allowed to lock), a man I didn’t know might come in. I panicked – I unhooked my drip and tried to run away. The doctors did not think this was a good idea. I was sectioned.
In April, I was put on one-to-one observation on a mental health ward with a male member of staff. On those wards, the doors are locked – I couldn’t bolt, so I curled up in a ball and screamed. Maybe this makes me seem mad, but at the time, it felt like the only possible response to being trapped on a corridor of strangers, at night, where a man I didn’t know was going to watch me sleep.
These experiences are a world apart from my stays at Drayton Park Women’s Crisis House, a residential alternative to hospital for women in mental health crisis. There, nobody is ever locked in, and only women work there; the staff still check on residents regularly, but I knew that the person knocking on my bedroom door at midnight would always be a woman, so I wasn’t humiliated or frightened. And the checks were accompanied by intensive therapeutic work – usually two individual sessions a day – so I felt contained rather than controlled.
In mixed-gender residential services, I hardly left my room because I got unwanted attention from the male patients. But the more time I spent alone, the further my thoughts could run away with me. At Drayton Park, I had spaces to sit with other women without fear of harassment. It also helped that it’s a normal house; the bedding isn’t mint-green hospital blankets and the floors are carpeted. These things make a difference – cold, clinical environments where all the cutlery is plastic and every surface is wipe-clean don’t lift anyone’s mood.
As a women’s service, Drayton Park have also had to develop robust policies around self-harm, as it affects significantly more women than men. They spoke to me openly about it from the start, accepted that I might not be able to stop completely, and worked with me to manage the risk. On the wards the staff searched my room and I always found ways to hurt myself; at Drayton Park, I learned to trust them enough to hand in anything I wasn’t safe to have. It was the first residential service where I didn’t feel judged or punished for wanting to self-harm – this gave me the freedom to say when I was struggling, and so, gradually, I learned other ways to cope.
There is plenty of discussion in mental health around safety, but very little about what makes people feel safe. I think the best way to keep people physically safe – and the only way to make that safety sustainable once we go home – is to develop a relationship with staff where we feel safe emotionally. It is no coincidence that the only crisis service where I have felt that is run by women for women.