'It's a benign kind of prison' - Peter Smith tells of mental health struggles during Covid

Peter Smith, from Cromer, found UK high streets much different from when he left to live in the US d

Peter Smith, from Cromer, who has written about his struggles with mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. - Credit: Supplied by Peter Smith

In this column Cromer resident Peter Smith, 88, writes about his struggles with mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

My first column in the North Norfolk News appeared in May of last year and consisted of an account of the misery I went through as a result of the Covid lockdown, and an expression of gratitude for the work of the mental health staff of the NHS who had done so much to alleviate matters.

It is a pleasure to take up the story again.

The first thing I have to write about is the fact that that column led to my getting a letter - actually two letters - from the Lord Lieutenant of the county thanking me for thanking the NHS.

Not only did Lady Dannant write to me, she sent notes of thanks to the two neighbours who had supported me.

Lady Dannatt, Lord Lieutenant for Norfolk, at her home in Keswick, with puppy Maud. Picture: DENISE

Lady Dannatt, Lord Lieutenant for Norfolk, wrote to Peter Smith following his earlier piece in the North Norfolk News. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

Even more on my mind, though, is the news that a few months after writing about my mental state I suffered a relapse that eventually – in October - led to my being admitted to the Sandringham Ward of the Julian Hospital in Norwich.

I was there for a little over two months. I am more indebted to the NHS than ever.

There is something of a crisis in mental health care all over the world stemming from the various negative repercussions of the Covid pandemic. In north Norfolk there is, in fact, a pressure group that’s trying to do something about it.

The Julian Hospital, Norwich.

The Julian Hospital, Norwich. - Credit: Copyright Archant Norfolk.

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It is called the Campaign for Mental Health Services in North Norfolk, and you can find out more about it by going to its Facebook page.

Being in a psychiatric ward is a little like being in a benign kind of prison. One thing about it that will stay with me I believe for ever is the fact that every hour on the hour - all 24 of them - a member of staff checked that all sixteen of the patients was in the ward. One aspect of the

difference between this kind of incarceration and the kind that applies to criminals is the level of staffing – on any given day there was one staffer for every two patients – staff meaning medical, nursing, occupational and physiotherapy, and support. Good mental health treatment does not come cheap.

The reason I am even more grateful than I was last May is that I have come to know so many more of the people employed by the NHS in this part of its work.

And, almost as significant for me, I came to know other people in need of therapy. With only one exception every person I met in those two months struck me as someone I benefitted from knowing.

The one exception was someone I shall call Fred (not his real name - first names are the only names used on the ward – and that goes for the staff as well as the patients.)

He managed to sleep much of the days and disturb the rest of during the nights – by hollering for attention.

Essentially a place like Sandringham Ward is for short-term patients, but I have a feeling that Fred had been there long before I arrived and will still be there for a long time to come.

But perhaps I am wrong about that, for the fact is that there are five psychiatric wards in the Julian Hospital and I'm not sure what the others are for.

Psychiatry is a mysterious business, I think. At some point – without much overt therapeutic effort experienced – it seemed clear to me and the main consultant physician that I would be able to fend for myself.

But there had to be two sessions – involving a lot of people – before a decision would be made.

I suppose it’s not unlike what a parole hearing consists of. It was important that among those people were several of the staff who had been among those I encountered virtually every day.

I cannot sufficiently praise those men and women. Their supply of patience and empathy is something exceptional.

Just today I was distressed to be told that it’s against the rules to maintain any contact with any of them - in several instances I know that I would like to be able to include them among my friends.

I have a feeling that very few ex-prisoners want to know their former warders once they are free!