My battle to access talking therapy

As someone with lived experience, I am a passionate advocate for talking therapies. Over the past couple of years I have engaged with a number of talking therapists, each one dealing with a different piece of my complex jigsaw. I rate them very highly. So highly, in fact, that I wish that it was a lot easier to access them. I became depressed early in 2017 following an adverse experience and ,like many people, I put on a brave face and tried to pretend I was ok. I think I was just hoping that my thoughts would right themselves over time. It turns out this is a very dangerous tack to take and I ended up sacrificing my wellbeing quite seriously because of my fear of speaking up. There can be no doubt that mental health stigma contributed in a large way to this problem, but it is important in these situations to look at context in full.


Individuals who were in my life at that time were treating me in such a way as to distress and degrade me and my sense of self worth had become so low that I didn’t really believe the doctor would care about me. In addition to this, my G.P. practice didn’t really seem to know what to do with me. On one occasion I phoned the practice in despair to ask for help because I didn’t believe my antidepressants were working and was told off quite severely by the nurse that triaged me. I was told I would have to wait two weeks to see the G.P. to have my meds reviewed, no one could attend to me in the interim. The nurse didn’t advise me of any other services I could turn to in despair, such as Lifeline, even though the help is out there. I complained about this and asked for a more person centred response to my mental health in future. In fairness, the Practice Manager responded with a lovely letter that helped to settle me down a bit. Later on, I became afraid of being in the house on my own because if all the antidepressants in the cupboard - it was too tempting to take them. I made an appointment with the G.P. and gave him back the meds, saying they weren’t helping anyway. He prescribed me even stronger antidepressants of the same type. Within a few weeks they caused me to develop a heart arrhythmia and to have to be seen by the Out of Hours to be taken off the meds. Again, I stated that the pills were not changing the problem with my mood. During all of this, I was never referred to community mental health services, even for screening.


 My situation became more painful in terms of the problems I was facing  and my husband, mother and sister all became very afraid that I was going to lose my battle with depression. They each individually contacted my G.P. and were told there was nothing the practice could do, if they were really afraid they should take me to the Rapid Response Team in A and E. My sister phoned the Rapid Response Team who said if they were going to bring me to A and E, they would need to have a referral from the G.P. There was no way out of the black hole I was falling in to.


 In the end, my sister phoned the Ulster Clinic and I was seen by a Psychiatrist there at the cost of quite a lot of money. The Psychiatrist gave me a full assessment, diagnosed me with two mental illnesses and suggested that I should also be assessed for ASD. He also identified that I was on the wrong kind of drug - I needed different type of antidepressant. He devised a treatment plan with me and he wrote a letter to my G.P. detailing all this. Thankfully, he cc’d me in to the letter because when I rang the surgery to ask for my new meds, the letter had gone missing. I photocopied my copy of the letter and brought it down straight away. The new drugs were issued and my husband and I made an appointment to ask for community services. My husband pushed the G.P. hard to make the referral and with the back up of the Psychiatrist’s letter, I got referred through. I waited three months to be screened by community services, but thankfully during that time I was on meds that were working to improve my mood and my sleep. I was seen by a really lovely CPN, who I felt was really able to understand what was happening to my mind and she referred me for Clinical Psychology. Three weeks later I received a letter to say I had been accepted in to the service, but they would not be able to see me for seven to eight months. I’m still waiting.


What a battle to access services! What a rigamarole to be prescribed pills that are saving my life! When someone wth depression is bullied, as I was, the negative messages of the bullying seep in to our core. You believe yourself to be worthless and a burden to your family. The last thing you are going to do is ask the G.P. for help. You would prefer to hide. If I hadn’t had a family who fought my corner, and in particular a very loving husband, I dread to think where it would all have ended. If my sister had not been able to get the money together to have me seen privately, I probably wouldn’t have gotten through to mental health services at all. This is a very serious matter, since many people don’t have those resilience factors in their life. This means there is serious inequality in the system, although let’s face it - I benefitted.


When I look back on those really awful months now, the ones where I had no services and the wrong meds, I am convinced that it was talking therapies that kept me going. I became a regular caller to Lifeline and the Samaritans. I highly rate these services, Lifeline in particular if you feel you need to be seen by a doctor. The counsellors in Lifeline are worth their weight in gold. I was also lucky to be a Theatre NI member during this time. I pay just £15 a year for membership and it entitled me to counselling through Inspire. This was really helpful and I talked about some of the issues I was facing, although admittedly I will need the help of the psychologist to deal with it all.


There is vast power in talking. In having your trauma acknowledged by another human being. In interacting with someone who treats you with respect to balance out the degradation and the stigma. To say things that would frighten your family, or things that have been racing round your mind. I tried the empty chair technique, where you address the person who has hurt you in the counselling session by imagining they are in the chair. It gets some of the anger out - takes the pressure out of your head. I learned in counselling about how when we have trauma the body keeps the score. The memories are physically in your body and there are practical skills for dealing with that. These skills have really helped me to heal my body and in turn this had helped my thoughts and my sleep to calm down. I am really looking forward to further talking therapy and hoping that with this kind of input I can recover.


 It is very sad that there are so many G.P. practices which don’t offer talking therapies, it is left at the discretion of the practice and not treated as a necessity. It is even more sad that in N.I. we don’t have a specific mental health training course for G.P.’s. This explains a lot for me and helps me understand why they didn’t really know what to do for me. It is essential that people with lived experience tell their stories and find a way to act in solidarity -we need a collective voice if we are going to make a change to this situation. I welcome the oportunity provided by the #123GP campaign  to tell my story and for the work they do to bring people together and sound that collective voice.


Mental health in NI is in crisis and The Independent newspaper recently reported that suicide is of epidemic proportions here. I also recently read that North Belfast has the highest suicide rates in the whole world between the ages of 25 and 55. We really need to shine a light on this crisis and to call not only for a fairer piece of the pie in terms of health funding (we get only 5%), but also for better training for G.P.’s. It is only by raising awareness with frontline health staff that we can make a difference and see the services we need being properly developed.


Note :  This piece was written by PM, a member of the #123GP campaign.