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Lost souls beyond a plush entrance to Highgate Mental Health Centre

17 March, 2011

Published: 17th March, 2011

THE front entrance to Highgate Mental Health Centre feels more like a university reception area than a low-secure unit.

There are toys in the family room, a soothing prayer space with stained-glass windows and colourful art hangs on every wall.

A £4million super ward – soon to be occupied by patients following the closure of two other mental hospitals in Camden – smells of fresh paint.

But behind the gleaming exteriors it is an overwhelmingly tragic place, where patients are given electric shock treatment, drug sniffer dogs sometimes patrol the wards and whispering voices-in-the-mind are the salient authority.

One inpatient has recently used the new computer facilities to order a £7,000 delivery of shopping from Tesco.

Head matron Jo Spencer gave the New Journal an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of the closed wards, medication rooms and state-of-the-art facilities on Friday.

She said: “When it comes to mental health, one of the hardest concepts for people to understand is that the voices these people are hearing are not just thoughts, but actual voices. 

“People understand what it feels like to be depressed and, to an extent, paranoia. But to hear a voice that is real but not real?

“The things people hear have changed as society changes: in the early 1980s, it was mainly about nuclear things. Now it’s more religious stuff: god, royalty, having special powers.”

The vast majority of patients in Highgate have schizophrenia or bipolar and are sectioned against their will. Many are receiving doses of powerful “anti-psychotic” medication like olanzapine and clozapine.

Parents of patients have told the New Journal these drugs have altered their offspring beyond recognition, and patients say the drugs leave them listless and dull.

Ms Spencer, who grew up in Somers Town, said: “If I am grandiose, and you make me normal, it is natural I will be upset. People do see losing the inner voices as a loss. ‘Without them, what do we have left’? Of course the medication has side-effects. But it does really work.”

Medication, it emerges, is not the only controversial treatment in Highgate Mental Health Centre. Also employed is Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT), where electrodes are attached to the side of the face, delivering an electric charge to patients under general anaesthetic. The treatment induces convulsions that are believed to flood the brain with serotonin, reversing the effects of acute depression. Memory loss is one of the most common complaints from ECT patients.

“We give them a cup of tea after because it can be a bit odd when they come round,” said Ms Spencer. “It is debatable, but judiciously used it does get results.” 

ECT treatment has been administered to nine patients, on 102 occasions, since April last year.

Schizophrenia is a condition normally diagnosed in young men around the age of 18-20 years old.

Ms Spencer said: “I am convinced cannabis has an impact. The trouble is there is no way of telling who will be affected by it and who will be fine.”

She said drugs were sometimes found on the wards and that sniffer dogs were brought in to uncover the hidden stashes. 

Jasper Ward opened seven years ago but still feels new and clean. There is a computer room with machines hooked up to the internet, albeit with restricted access. The Trust has been locked in talks with Tesco over cancelling the rogue bill. “I think we are blacklisted from their site now,” said Ms Spencer. 

One inpatient has put up photos of his family on the wall and fixed a plastic bag over the window so no one can see in. There is also a towel blocking the bottom crack of the toilet door. 

Ms Spencer has organised a popular quiz for patients – those on Amber Ward are current champions after winning three years in the row. The next one will be about the Royal Family and coincide with Kate and Wills’s big day.

A patient stomping down the corridor is muttering about a “black king” and repeating “praise the lord!”. The woman appears quite menacing at first, but when she sees Ms Spencer her face suddenly relaxes and she says: “So nice to see you. Please. When are we doing the quiz again?”

Ms Spencer is overjoyed. “You don’t get that very often,” she beams. “That’s what I do this job for.”


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