Having suffered with mental illness including depression and bipolar disorder, for the vast majority of my life, I have many experiences with the UK’s healthcare system, having grown up in the country. Since these experiences I have grown to love travel and now have regular treatment. However, getting to this point was difficult.
Therefore, I’ve written this slightly more personal article, as most of these experiences have been negative. I also believe that the stigma surrounding mental illness has played a part in these negative experiences.
Suicide is the biggest killer for men under the age of 45.
In 2018, over 6000 people committed suicide.
If mental illness is just as deadly as any physical illness, it’s time we treat it as such.
Now I could rant for hours about this, but I thought I’d offer you 10 examples of times that I, or somebody I know, has needed help, but did not receive any.
The reason I want to share this is in hope that at some point, this will change. Funding for mental health needs to increase, and our services and the access to them need to improve.
Please note: this article may contain trigger points and so may not be suitable for you to continue reading.
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No help for 17 year olds
In the UK, if you are between the ages of 16 and 18, you are not classified as either a child or an adult. This makes it difficult to access either child or adult mental health services.
When I was 17, the only mental health service I could access was through my school, and that was limited to 8 sessions. I could not access counselling on the National Health Service (NHS) through any other source. Luckily, at this time, 8 sessions were enough to help me deal with my depression. This was brought on by chronic fatigue syndrome.
However, for many others, 8 sessions are simply not enough. Unless you have the resources to pay for a counsellor yourself, you may not be able to access these services.
No appointment with my doctor (despite being suicidal)
When I was at university, I had a very bad week where I experienced suicidal thoughts. Despite the seriousness of this, I could not get an appointment to see my GP for two weeks. After speaking to the receptionist, she said this wasn’t a reason to get an urgent GP appointment. She advised me to wait two weeks or, if it was urgent, visit accident & emergency (A&E).
I had an excellent relationship at this time with my doctor, and he was the only person I felt comfortable talking to. Given the sensitive nature of my thoughts, I did not want to visit A&E – even though I probably should have.
I managed to wait the two weeks with support from family. Luckily, I had a strong support network around me. However, for many others waiting two weeks alone could have been too long.
The possible consequences of a suicidal person having to spend weeks alone with their thoughts does not bear thinking about…
Classified as ‘not ill enough’ too many times to count
During one of my lowest bouts of depression from my bipolar, I signed up for the University of Manchester’s counselling service.
The woman I saw told me my condition was serious enough to receive help, and scheduled me for my first appointment – in four weeks time. I waited the 4 weeks and went to the appointment, feeling optimistic that somebody wanted to help.
When I arrived, the woman who saw me stated that my case was not serious enough and this was the last meeting I could have. I was angry and upset…. Not serious enough? At the time I was suffering from suicidal thoughts, so I hate to think what the cut-off is for serious enough.
Thanks Manchester Uni for raising my hopes and failing miserably to meet them!
Discharged from hospital, despite being suicidal
A relative of mine suffered from severe depression for most of her life. She visited a hospital for help. Sadly, she was discharged just hours later, and took her own life from the roof of the hospital.
This made headline news in the UK.
‘Not good enough’ was the response by many people.
Did anything change?
Fast forward 5 years and the truth is nothing has changed.
And yes… it makes me angry!
10-month wait to see a psychiatrist
After starting university, I began to experience the first symptoms of bipolar disorder. I visited my local doctor, who said he could refer me to a psychiatrist for an appointment. There I would receive a possible diagnosis and medication.
The catch in the UK?
A 10-month wait to do so.
Now I was severely ill, and the idea of waiting 10 months is, in my opinion, absurd! If I went to my doctor with a broken leg, he would never say “sorry, it’s 10 months until we can fix it”.
Sadly, bipolar can be just as deadly as any physical illness, with over 20% of sufferers attempting suicide at some point in their lives.
This is a completely unacceptable wait time for someone with dangerous mental health issues.
During these 10 months I suffered severe depression and mania.
If I could have seen this psychiatrist earlier, many long, mentally-demanding months could have been avoided.
8-month wait to see a psychiatrist the second time
After my first visit to a psychiatrist (after the above 10 month wait), I was discharge with a certain dose of medication for my bipolar. About a year later I began to struggle with my moods again.
My GP wanted to increase my dose of medication… However, in the UK, only your psychiatrist can do so. This meant I had to be referred back to my psychiatrist. I waited another 8 months to see my psychiatrist again.
I understand the idea that only a specialist can change your medication dose. However, this system failed me at this time.
I spent another 8 months struggling before my dose was increased and my symptoms began to improve.
No prescription longer than 3 months
One of the hardest parts about travelling with bipolaris needing a steady supply of medication. In the UK, the longest prescription you can get for anti-psychotics (my medication) is three months.
When I decided to move to China for one year, I took just three months supply with me. I knew I would need to find more abroad and I hated the uncertainty of this.
I pleaded with my GP to give me a longer prescription. Apparently, it’s against the ‘rules’. Whilst I understand the need for these rules, I also think that I have a right to travel, and a right to live my life how I want to live it. It would not be fair to say that anybody who is mentally ill cannot travel or live away from their home for more than three months.
I understand the need for greater assessment before giving out a larger supply of medication. However, I don’t think it is fair to simply rule out this option.
Did limiting my medication prevent me from travelling?
Did it create uncertainty while I was travelling?
Schools refusing to allow me an extra year for my A levels
When I was 17, I fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome.
My doctor limited my time out of the house to just four hours per day. This meant I only attended half as much school as my classmates.
My head teacher originally said I could take an extra year to complete my International Baccalaureate Diploma (an equivalent of A levels).
However, after mentioning I might consider moving schools, she revoked this option. She said if our school couldn’t ‘claim’ my grades, then no other school could have them.
In summary: she decided that she’d rather have an 18-year old perform badly on their A levels, and the school be able to claim the ‘credit’, than the student performing to their full potential by taking an extra year, but another school gaining some of the ‘credit’.
My head teacher was motivated purely by the school’s grades and not by protecting her own students.
A 2-year wait for a counsellor
It’s well known within the medical profession and the scientific field that mental health issues are best treated with a combination of medication and talking therapy.
However, counselling is an expensive cost to the NHS, and due to the many cuts in our NHS over the last 15 years, it is difficult to receive talking therapy.
After my diagnosis of bipolar, I was referred to a counsellor.
My wait for a counsellor was estimated at 2 years… 2 years?!!
Whilst I was lucky enough to be in a situation to afford private counselling with the help of my family, many people aren’t so lucky.
This length of wait for treatment is just not acceptable!
Some people wonder why our suicide rates are so high in the UK… but it’s not surprising considering that even if you get the courage to talk about it, there is no one there to listen.
“You’re not mentally ill… you just drink too much”
My last example comes from the private psychiatrist. I paid an extortionate amount of money to see after the NHS said I would be waiting 10 months.
I had high hopes for him and I wanted him to fully understand how ill and out of control I had been.
He asked how much I drank… I was honest and told him a lot… as most students do.
He then proceeded to tell me how I didn’t have bipolar and I wasn’t ill; I just needed to stop drinking and I would be fine.
I did explain that I believed my heavy drinking was a side effect of an illness and not the cause of any symptoms I had. But I think he was more convinced about his own superiority over a student than he was about listening to a woman who knows her body and mind well.
Needless to say, it wasn’t drinking that was the cause, and 8 months later I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a psychiatrist from the NHS.
These examples just reiterate my message – it is dangerous to have a mental illness in the UK. The funding and services available are just not good enough in terms of mental health.
More needs to be done by our government to change this.
Mental health is no longer a taboo topic.
It’s time to talk.
It’s time that everyone gets the help and respect they deserve.