“You’re stupid”. From these misjudged words, spoken by a Junior Doctor, Geoff learnt, as a small child, an important lesson: never to tell anyone about the voices he was hearing. So he kept them secret through growing up, falling in love and even getting married. Despite going in and out of hospital over the years he kept the secret until two years ago.
“I can’t do nothing when I feel like this”. Tina was taken into care as a small child; separated from her sisters. Her foster father was an alcoholic and when drunk abused her. By age 14 she was in a secure unit because nobody could handle her. She longed to find her real parents but, when she did, the self-harming got worse. She had a growing sense of isolation and depression and, in her own words, “was not a very nice person” and ended being sent to prison for her own safety.
These are just two of the stories, shared at Hearing Voices, a special forum held at Norwich Cathedral to help people share the stories of their struggles with mental health. The event is part of the Cathedral’s on-going commitment to provide a safe space for difficult conversations. Last year the Cathedral held another mental health forum entitled Black Dog, to help people explore and challenge the stigma that can so easily be attached to issues of mental health.
Hearing Voices began with ex-Norwich City footballer, Cedric Anselin, sharing his struggle with depression and his journey from being a French Under-21 International and playing in a Champions League final through to becoming a labourer at a holiday park in Lowestoft.
Cedric was signed on a three-year loan to Norwich City. The first year went well, then an injury kept him from playing for a year and then his contract was not renewed. He felt a growing sense of anxiety, doubting his own ability, feeling shame and rejection. As his life started to crumble, home was the only place he felt safe so he started to go out less. There were thoughts of suicide but he was also scared of dying. For 15 years he had known that something was not right and when, finally the team at Hellesdon Hospital diagnosed depression, it felt like a great weight being lifted from his shoulders. Accepting this diagnosis was the first step on the continuing road to his recovery.
Hearing stories from people such as Cedric, Tina & Geoff is both humbling and empowering. When people are honest enough to tell their stories, it helps others to feel safe to start telling their stories and also to know they will be listened to with understanding rather than judgement. As several people said there is nothing worse than being told to “pull yourself together”.
As people started to share their stories in small groups, they also spoke of what had helped and what had hindered them in their recovery. On the negative side were reports of individuals struggling to access services and of professionals not being available. Treatment itself often felt like a process of trial and error, which in turn prolonged the time in treatment, made worse by the side-effects of some medications. Sometimes too the place of treatment was at some distance from home increasing the sense of isolation. Others spoke of the fickleness of family and friends on hearing of the diagnosis, not helped by the way the media often portrays those with mental health problems.
There was recognition too of the impact on families. Too often they can feel their needs, and their insights are ignored. Equally those struggling can be reluctant to burden those closest to them with the reality of what they are experiencing. The temptation is to put on the appearance of coping but the more an individual appears to be coping the less help is available.
In a positive contrast, others spoke of the significance of the move to a single point of access to support services, the importance of continuity of care and the value of self-help groups, crisis cafés and walk-in groups.
A recurring theme was the desire to be treated as an individual, the importance of being listened to and of having people who believe in you even through the difficult times. Others mentioned how physical exercise, maintaining a good diet and using the creative arts had helped.
Both Tina and Geoff, as well as many others present at Hearing Voices, spoke of the importance of Recovery College. Locally the Recovery College, run by Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust, provides a range of courses and workshops to service users, carers and members of staff to develop their skills, understand mental health, identify goals and support their access to opportunities. Through these courses individuals reported learning about themselves, rediscovering hope and learning to look forward not back. For Geoff this means that for the first time in his life he is in control of the voices and so has been able to turn his life around. Tina simply said that she felt “I was a person again.”
Faith too was seen as playing a supportive role as well as church buildings being experienced as healing spaces. One individual attending Hearing Voices spoke about how he had felt anxious when his carer had had to leave the event early, but the space in the Cathedral helped him to feel calm again.
Hearing Voices was organized jointly by Norwich Cathedral with the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust and the Hertfordshire Partnership Foundation Trust. The Chairs of both Trusts, Gary Page and Chris Lawrence, attended the event and stressed they were very much in listening mode. They promised to take away the concerns and ideas they had heard to see how their Trust’s services could better respond to the needs of those seeking help.
As one participant at Hearing Voices said: “When the listening stops, the struggles begin.” This is why it is so important to provide safe spaces where people can share their stories and be honest about their feelings. Such events cannot be just one-off opportunities; we need to keep listening. Norwich Cathedral is committed to working with the local trusts and ensuring that the issues around mental health remain very much on the public agenda.
This article was first published in the bimonthly magazine of the Diocese of Norwich - see more at www.dioceseofnorwich.org/magazine and look for the Sept-Oct 2017 edition.
Images credited to Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust - used with permission.