Being sectioned can be a hugely traumatic experience, not just for the person with a mental illness, but also for their families and close friends.
Witnessing someone you love, pushed to the point of needing involuntary, professional intervention is really scary, and can leave you feeling utterly helpless.
A new BBC Three show, In My Skin, explores the idea of caring for a family member with severe mental illness.
In the pilot episode, lead character Bethan is just 16, but has to make the devastating decision to have her mum sectioned, following a mental health crisis.
The following scenes, where Bethan visits her mum while she’s detained on a locked ward, depicts the intense conflicted emotions that come after.
Along with the pain of seeing them lose their freedom, there’s also the relief of having the burden of care removed. But, as Bethan experiences, the person with the illness may not have the capacity to see the benefits of being cared for, and their anger and resentment can be incredibly tough to face.
Cathryn has Bipolar type 1, and spent time in psychiatric institutions after being sectioned. She says seeing her experience depicted on screen with such accuracy was both unnerving and powerful.
‘I was totally unprepared for how affecting it would be,’ Cathryn tells Metro.co.uk
‘Seeing Jo Hartley’s portrayal of an episode – the chaos and fear, paranoia and severity of it – felt like a punch in the stomach. I was taken right back to my own experiences, and Bethan’s impossible job as carer was gut-wrenching. My mum went through it too, with me.’
Cathryn says her mum’s presence was crucial throughout her periods of crisis.
‘Mum was the bedrock of my recovery. She kept bringing my mind back to small and good things, and found the strength to deal with me, even when I was hostile, resentful, and incoherent.
‘I sometimes lashed out at my mum. I found it hard to understand why I’d been detained, and would sometimes blame her, without seeing that everything she did came from love.’
Cathryn was diagnosed in 2014 following a psychotic break. She experienced deep depression, chaotic elevation, insomnia and hallucinations. When she hit her lowest point, her mum, Susan, sprang into action.
Susan says: ‘I went into crisis mode, knowing that I first had to get her to safety and then get to be with her. And the facilities at A&E just couldn’t provide the support.
‘The patient was at the mercy of a struggling system that led hopelessly overworked staff to use phrases like “she is attention seeking” and, most terrifyingly, “you can go in but I doubt she will recognize you”.
‘It was then that I realised how alone we were. I barely knew what sectioning was, I just knew my daughter was in hell. She was terrified and I would not leave her.
‘And she needed help. At times, I found I could reach her and enter some of her experiences enough to calm her and be alongside her. But I had to fight to get a mental health nurse. I refused to leave Cathryn and eventually, at breaking point, I pressed a red alarm bell and refused to remove my finger until a mental health nurse came.’
Since 2014, Cathryn has had several relapses and has been sectioned and detained four more times. Once she was held in an American hospital after having a psychotic break on a plane headed for Texas.
Each episode is draining and traumatising for both mother and daughter. As a relative, trying to keep your loved one calm as their world crumbles around them is the biggest challenge.
‘Cathryn was clinging to my arm in terror, repeating one phrase that she had got stuck on, over and over at top speed. She was pulled off my coat, which she had been clutching, by what seemed to me like bouncers and guards, and I was forcibly, fiercely barred from entering the room.
‘I think the best way to help at visits is to be calm, to normalise things, to listen and, above all, to build trust and respect with the staff.
‘You need to hold on firm;y to the small dignities and be kind to everyone but keep a handle on your boundaries, otherwise you will be flooded by all the impressions around you. I just focused on making Cathryn feel safe, that this was temporary and that all would be well.
‘Our relationship, which was good before, only grew stronger through these trials. There was a point of connection with Cathryn, even in the eye of the storm, that was never lost between us.’
What does it actually mean to be sectioned?
Being ‘sectioned’ is the term that is often used when someone is detained under the Mental Health Act.
The Mental Health Act is the law which can allow someone to be admitted, detained and treated in hospital against their wishes.
It can be a very distressing experience for the person, and their family and friends, and will generally be used only if all other options have been considered, for instance looking at whether support can be provided in the community or if someone would agree to go into hospital voluntarily.
The Mental Health Act would only be considered if someone was very unwell and will never be taken lightly.
Someone needs to meet certain criteria in order to be sectioned.
It could be that they have to be detained in a hospital for assessment or treatment, and it would be in the interests of their own health, their own safety or to protect others.
For Cathryn, her experience of being sectioned has been, at times, harrowing. But even through the toughest of days, the support of her mum and the friends who stuck by her has been a beacon of hope.