I was locked in a police cell for 36 hours while I had a psychotic episode

by Toby Williams

17 June 2015

This personal account reflects on the author’s first-hand experience of psychosis, police involvement with mental health services, and being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Content warning.

It was the summer of 2011. I had crushed myself with the academic excess of exams, the competitive revision-fest of the university library and a self-inflicted pressure to perform. A fortnight later I was in police custody, sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983. Having been left naked in solitary confinement for 36 hours, I was taken to a psychiatric intensive care unit.

The triggers for the episode were the mundane stresses of life and an underlying tendency towards extreme behaviour, to push myself too hard. I’d split up with my girlfriend a few weeks earlier. To distract myself, I plunged head first into revision.

After exams, I let loose. I remember sitting in my grimy north London room shortly after finishing, with tears on my face thinking that there was a civil war going on inside my head. To survive, I had to win it. Hedonism was a useful escape; I upped the drinking and spent more time socialising.

Six months earlier I’d been on Westminster bridge on a December night, with thousands of students and young people who’d had the temerity to confront the state over tuition fees policy. Police on both sides squashed the protesters, who’d been kettled for hours. A few months later I was trampled over by riot police at the 26 March trade union demo. It was over in an instant, I brushed it off and bounced up again, but each instance of violence left scars on my psyche.

At first, in midst of the exams, I became manic. I became fixated on different ideas and was easily agitated. Being manic led to insomnia, weeks of insomnia led to a short period of psychosis, a world of delusions, hallucinations and paranoia.

In June I went to a music festival. I began to build an alternative reality, like a lucid dream, where I was totally free do anything I wanted. I never lie, but over the first day and night I must have told hundreds of fibs as I created a fantasy world.

My psychosis presented itself as a hyper-social demon. I chatted to security guards and roadies as part of a malevolent plan to go wherever I wanted and do whatever I wanted. I leapt over barricades, stole random objects and revelled in mayhem.

It took about 24 hours to work out something was badly wrong. The next afternoon, possession-less and purposeful, I popped into the medical tent. I told them, “I feel physically fine, but can you check I’m okay – and if so, might it be something else?”

From this point on my memory becomes hazy. I remember hours of assessments, attempts at sleep and the eventual conclusion that sedation was necessary. Before I blacked out, I was asked what drugs I had taken. I thought they meant in my life, ever, so I gave them a list. I think this information was interpreted to be the drugs I was on at that moment. It was a misunderstanding I would cling to over the following days, as I sought a rational reason for my behaviour.

The next thing I know, I’m handcuffed in a police car pinned in by cops on all sides. I’m taken to a hospital reception area. I have a memory of being surrounded by onlookers while handcuffed. I pissed myself while chained to a chair. They must have run out of beds at that hospital, because the next memory I have was of being in a police cell.

The irony of police involvement in the British mental health system is that people in the midst of psychotic episodes often develop paranoid fantasies involving a conflict between themselves and powerful forces. Being assaulted and abused by the police while being incarcerated tends to exacerbate such delusions.

Ethnicity and class helped me in this three-dimensional war between myself, my illness and the state: I’m a white, middle class, cisgendered man. Arrest in Britain tends to be more of a bureaucratic procedure than brutal ordeal, especially for white people. Getting sectioned was different. Being locked up while having a psychotic episode and being dehumanised to the point where I didn’t give a care about life anymore was the worst experience I’ve ever had

The low point of the incarceration was when I requested clothes and was handed a piss-sodden straightjacket. A chief inspector also saw fit to extend my detention beyond the 24 hour maximum, so 36 hours after I arrived, I was pulled out of the cell, given a police issue one-piece and transported by van to a psychiatric intensive care unit.

“Another one, fucked up by the Home Office,” one nurse said to another as he closed door on the isolation room.

I tried to escape, but was dissuaded by high fences and diligent nurses. A more refined plan was attempted and successfully executed: pretend to be sane. After calming down and lying to a psychiatrist, who assumed that my condition was caused by recreational drug use, I was released back into the wild.

Overall though my experience in hospital was positive; it felt like a place of safety. I began a gentle return to my old self. Thanks to a good family and an easy summer job, I was later able to relax and get better.

Afterwards, I came to some simple conclusions about mental health in Britain. Mental health services in the UK are chronically underfunded: had better early intervention care been available, some of this horror could have been avoided.

Police involvement in mental health services needs to end. It has meant that I’ve treated the whole incident as a taboo. Going to hospital is perfectly respectable; going to jail for psychosis makes you feel like an outcast. It is an 18th century solution to the self-made 21st century problem of austerity.

Sean Rigg, who was killed by police in 2008, wasn’t able to make such a recovery. His death in Brixton police station was one of 7,630 in British state custody recorded between 2000 and 2013, 60% of whom were detained under mental health legislation, according to a report by the charity Inquest.

The stigma of mental illness prevents proper accountability from taking place. Police involvement in mental health heightens the worst symptoms of psychosis. It is time to stop treating mental illness as a crime.

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