The World Health Organization has estimated that mental or neurological disorders will affect one in four people at some point in their lives. In the U.K., one charity says this proportion is far higher.
On May 8, the London-based Mental Health Foundation found that two-thirds of British adults report experiencing mental illness at some point. It is a problem that the charity says is getting worse, compounded by government cuts to mental health funding. Last month, a U.K. police report warned that officers were increasingly being used to look after vulnerable people who couldn’t access mental health support.
For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Newsweek spoke to a 34-year-old British woman named Kathy about her own battle to get mental health support. Because of the sensitivity of Kathy’s allegations, she asked Newsweek to not include her last name. Read her story below.
I initially started off using mental health services when I was about 11. I had a lot of problems going on at home: My dad had left and was very emotionally abusive and I had a stepfather who was physically and sexually abusive and no one picked up on that. I only told my mum last week.
I remember from that age I had auditory hallucinations. I hear three male, external voices. Occasionally it sounds like they’re coming from the TV or the phone but it usually sounds like they’re coming from behind me. The voices began around the time the abuse started. They were very loud and negative and I couldn’t ignore them.
Although I never spoke about the abuse, the school knew things weren’t right at home and they arranged to put me into a group with other young people. That’s all I was given at first. They called it something like the Biscuit Club. Even at that age I knew that it was nonsense. I definitely wasn’t comfortable enough to talk about the voices or anything like that. The other children were talking about problems that didn’t seem that serious to me at the time so I stopped going to that and pulled out of therapy entirely.
After that, things got more complicated and I started self-harming a lot. My stepfather was an alcoholic and my mum was drinking a lot to keep up with him. There were a lot of things I felt I couldn’t tell anybody, I was worried social services would take me away and I needed to look after her. So I hid my mental health problems so she and my younger sister wouldn’t be affected.
I had begun taking anti-psychotic medication around the age of 11 but I came off it when I was 14—because while it stopped my suicidal thoughts, it left me feeling numb. I still wasn’t talking to anyone about my problems and then at the age of 15, I moved out of my house to live with a boyfriend and later a friend.
When I was about 19, I moved from my hometown to study at a higher education college. My mum had a new partner and I felt like I could leave her. But at the college, I had a full-on breakdown. I was back on medication but I went to a doctor and spoke to her to see if she could help. She told me: “You’re taking medication, I don’t think there’s anymore we can do for you.” I will never forget that. I remember sitting in her office and thinking I can’t go on. It was one of the worst moments and that put me off going to get any more support at the time.
Then, things got worse. I was going through all these feelings of abandonment. My mum had sold our house, which had been like my safety net, and my housemate—who I had been in love with—came out as gay. I think I felt like no one was paying me any attention at all and I just needed people to notice how unhappy I was.
I can’t remember that period but I was using drugs very heavily. I’d mostly take MDMA and pills and sometimes I’d take them all day, it was the only time I didn’t feel such internal darkness, hatred and horror. It made me like people and talk to people and go out of the house. I lost a lot of bar and restaurant jobs for being high at work, because I wouldn’t go out without taking drugs.
One evening, when I was 20 years old, my housemates called mental health services. I had smashed the mirror in my bedroom and began cutting my face. It wasn’t enough to kill myself, but there was a lot of blood. When the medics came, I could hear them at the front door and they asked my housemates if they thought I would come voluntarily. My housemates said no. The medics didn’t even come and speak to me, I just heard them at the front door as I was upstairs and I remember thinking, there isn’t anything anyone can do.
That was a bit of a wakeup call to me and I moved out and really isolated myself and just kind of hid away for quite a long time, for about a year. Then I got my first care job working in a supportive housing unit for 16 to 25 year-olds. I started doing a lot of training about childhood trauma and mental health. It was only about learning about it from work that I began to piece together my issues and realise that my childhood trauma led to mental health problems.
It took a long time for me to get help on the National Health Service. I essentially had to beg a doctor for therapy and eventually I got it after going through numerous assessments. I must have seen my therapist for a couple of years, and he really was amazing. Then the funding cuts happened and he lost his job and my treatment ended. I remember that being a huge thing because I have a lot of issues around abandonment. And I felt like he was abandoning me too and nothing had been put in place for me.
I was kind of left for years, taking anti-depressants and anti-psychotics and talking to my doctor every six months. There was no therapy. At the time it was fine, because my life was going okay but I was really heavily using recreational drugs. I would get high every weekend and talk to people about my experiences and think that it was therapeutic but I was never really getting over anything. I was still having the hallucinations, still having a lot of self hate, still having negative thoughts.
About five years ago, funding cuts meant that I was made redundant for the first time. I had worked for the charity for seven years and I had worked my way up to management. I absolutely loved my job; it was 100 percent part of my identity. Losing that, it was kind of more than losing a person. It was all the young people that I managed, all the staff and agencies—all of a sudden it was gone. I couldn’t cope.
By this point I’d married, and my husband is amazing but he doesn’t earn a lot of money. I tried private counseling and because we didn’t have much money, the therapist only charged me ten pounds ($13) an hour. I think I only kept that up three or four months. We realised unless I dealt with stuff from my childhood, I wasn’t going to get better mentally. But I couldn’t deal with that because I had to focus on getting a job and keeping going.
I did get another job—this time doing homeless outreach. Although it was amazing, it was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, going out onto the streets at 3 a.m., and seeing people at their lowest.
I saw how much mental health services failed the clients that I worked with. I saw people who were bipolar or schizophrenic who couldn’t get help because they used drugs. But without help, they couldn’t stop taking drugs. Then there were the people who have no drug use whatsoever. I had one client who had multiple personality disorder, who slept on the side of the road and didn’t believe he had mental health problems. He must have been sectioned six or seven times and then released back onto the street with no care plan.
Ninety-nine percent of people on the streets were just like me. They’d had some trauma in their life that they’d never coped with so they turned to drugs and their lives just fell apart. I wasn’t any different except I had a really amazing boyfriend-turned-husband for 12 years who never would have let me end up on the streets.
I did that job for about 18 months before funding cuts meant I was made redundant again. Losing that job was painful, but I realised that instead of looking for work, I needed to work on myself. Now, I am in therapy, properly taking medication and having it reviewed and not applying to jobs until I’ve made a bit of progress with this.
I know I can’t tell any future employers about my mental health. Even in my line of work, there is still a lot of stigma attached to it. If you tell someone that you hear voices, they’ll think you’re crazy. You know, in horror films, people who hear voices kill people.
My voices just say horrible things about me and tell me to kill myself, they would never tell me to hurt anyone and I would never go for a job if they did. But, there are so many people looking for jobs—an employer will take whoever will be easy and who won’t need time off.
Whenever I’m ready to return to work, I know that I will again have to hide my mental health problems.