In all three of my psych ward stays, I’ve encountered the banter between patients about our situations. Patients, or rather ‘inmates’, discussing the ‘jailers’ (nurses and HCAs) and the ‘prison’ (the ward) in a jokey manner. But underneath the jokes, there is a small degree of truth in the banter.

For patients on a section, the hospital is like a prison. They can only leave the hospital grounds with permission of doctors (the permission is known as section 17 leave), and before their first ward round, a patient cannot leave the hospital grounds at all. Some psych wards do not allow sectioned patients without section 17 leave to go beyond the ward doors, which can mean that a person is left with no access to the outdoors.

In my first psych ward stay, I had no section 17 leave until my second week in. As the ward I was in was not on the ground floor and it was a ward that wouldn’t allow me beyond the ward doors, it meant no access to the outside world for nine days. Literally no fresh air for nine days. It was no surprise that I suffered with cabin fever.

Those nurses who wouldn’t let me beyond the ‘prison’ doors really were like jailers. If attempts were made to abscond (or rather ‘escape’) then the emergency alarm was pulled and the escapee was physically restrained, sometimes in painful ways. On one occasion, I was dragged by my hair to my bed, and I wasn’t even on a section!

I’ve tried several times during my three stays to break free of the ‘prisons’ I’ve been in and each time I’ve been fortunate in a way to have been stopped by the ‘jailers’. Other ‘inmates’ were more successful in their escape attempts but the police were called to find them and bring them back. I am fortunate to have never had the police involved during my stays but I’ve seen ‘inmates’, friends, being brought back in handcuffs for the crime of having an illness and leaving hospital. There is a sense that this isn’t right.

However, I can see both sides of the argument. I have a loved one who worked for the police for 30 years and they had many dealings with psych patients during their time as an officer. As much as psych patients don’t want the police to deal with their situation, the police also don’t want to spend their working hours playing hide and seek with psych patients. Currently, there’s no real workaround to this.

There was news recently of mental health staff being put on the beat alongside police officers, but it didn’t sound like it would make a real difference to how things currently are. There’s been many times I’ve left the unit to go out on leave and a police car has been in the car park right beside the front door. It really does bring home the legal aspect to mental health. And seeing friends being brought back to the ward in handcuffs for having left the ward makes it really feel that police involvement is wrong.

It always sends a chill down my spine when I see a police car by the front door. All I can wonder is who it is there for. Who’s run away? Are they OK? Will they be brought back to the normal ward or will they have to spend some time in the locked ward? I’ve spent time in the locked ward after one escape attempt too many, but fortunately only spent five days inside.

Of course, there are other people in all this. The ‘jailers’. The ward I’m in currently has lovely nurses and HCAs, but I know that not all wards are like this. But regardless of how nice the staff are, they will all do the same thing when a sectioned patient runs away. They will phone the police. Some ‘jailers’ may feel bad about it, some may get a sick sense of satisfaction from doing it, at the end of the day, they all do the same thing. There’s no workaround for them either.

The ‘jailers’ have the job of keeping psych patients safe. Some ‘jailers’ may take advantage of this responsibility and act like actual jailers, but there are some nice ones out there who will treat patients like they treat everyone else, but with the added element of keeping the person safe.

My ‘sentence’ in this ‘prison’ is almost over, but I’ve had some memorable moments with the legal side of this situation. At the end of this stay, all I can say with regards to the police is how lucky I am not to have had police involvement. I really hope that the current situation changes for the better, but sadly, I can’t see this happening.

But I’ve been wrong before. And this is one circumstance where I’m happy to be wrong!


Katy Gray

I started suffering with the symptoms of schizophrenia at the age of 18, but it wasn't until I was 21 before I was diagnosed. My diagnosis was recently updated to paranoid schizophrenia, but I refuse to be known by a label. I am a person first and my illness last. I am always trying to break the stigma that surrounds mental health, schizophrenia in particular, and write as much as I can to try and achieve this.

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