A speech by Laury Jeanneret
3 Year Anniversary Auction: Hauser & Wirth, London, 18th June 2019.
“Good evening, my name is Loz, and I am from The Hellingly Centre in East Sussex, which is a medium secure forensic psychiatric unit. Just to tell you a little bit about our service, we have 60 patients who are all detained under the Mental Health Act. They all have a mental health diagnosis, and at some point during their lives they have come into contact with the legal system, meaning that they require a higher level of security than mainstream psychiatric services, but they are often too unwell to be detained in prison settings.
When this happens individuals become subject to hospital orders by the courts and they are detained in ‘forensic’ hospitals. There are three tiers of forensic mental healthcare in the UK – high, medium and low. I’m sure you have all heard of Broadmoor and Rampton, these are high secure hospitals. The Hellingly Centre is a medium secure setting, meaning we have challenging patients, with complex histories who are detained sometimes for their own safety, sometimes for the safety of others, whilst they receive the treatment they need.
In a society that still stigmatises mental ill-health, forensic patients suffer a double-bind of marginalisation, they are defined not just by their diagnoses, but also by their offences. The patients we work with are afforded the least amount of understanding of all mental health service users. They become viewed as abject citizens by society and this dehumanisation can entrench cycles of alienation and dysfunction on foundations of insecure attachment histories and trauma.
Forensic settings are historically very closed worlds because of the level of security. Unlike acute wards, patients cannot just come and go. Nobody can get in, and nobody is allowed out without first completing a great amount of work. Patients have to work hard for months to get approved to even set foot on the hospital grounds. Some of our patients haven’t been outside at all, in years.
This offers challenges of its own, because where do you even begin to rehabilitate people who are completely disconnected from the workaday world? People who may have been in institutions for their entire adult lives, and in some cases people who have never known anything other than prison or psychiatric wards. It is not just their liberty that they lose when they are detained for such long periods, it is often their entire identities, their families, and most crucially, their hope.
Psychiatric wards are not nice places, they are often scary, challenging and volatile. At times it can seem like the walls actually absorb the distress and sadness of our patients. They are buildings that take an awful lot of wear and tear, that can feel oppressive and hopeless – walls are kicked and punched, doors are slammed, furniture is generic and functional to accommodate the patients and huge teams of nursing staff on 24-hour rotation.
So often what should be nurturing and healing environments and are sterile and soulless, that are in no way conducive to recovery. And people are very acutely affected by their environments, particularly when they have no choice but to be there. So what happens in that space is the relational work that we do with those patients, to re-parent them, help them to feel hope, continually reinforce that they are better than the worst thing they may have done.
And this is where the amazing work of Hospital Rooms holds such value. Because it is not just about making the wards prettier, it is about showing our patients that they are worth something more than being locked on a sterile ward, creating spaces that actually aid recovery and reflection, and empowering them to be part of that process. I work on Ash Ward, which is a 15-bed male ward. These are men who largely have only ever had negative experiences, in and out of institutions – foster placements, children’s homes, young offender’s institutions, prisons and secure hospitals.
They are a hard to reach group, a tough crowd, because they do not trust easily. They are suspicious of strangers, hypervigilant, because of often hugely traumatic pasts, and the constant stigma they have faced. They are men who have learned to survive by not communicating, by not engaging. And yet over the weeks that Hospital Rooms have been working at the centre we have seen these men embrace a process where they are meeting strangers and doing creative work that they wouldn’t have gone near before. It has been hugely humbling to see the way in which Tim, Niamh and all the artists have piqued their interest, just by being inclusive.
By offering them alternatives to sitting in their rooms, in the gentlest and most non-judgemental of ways. They were cautious at first, but as the weeks have gone on we have seen these men and women open up, pick up paint brushes, pencils, cameras, learn new techniques, talk to people whom they don’t know about something other than what they are diagnosed with or what they may have done to get here.
And that is the real power of this project, seeing patients literally weep and telling Tim and Niamh that they have had “the best day of their lives”, hearing men who have never engaged before asking excitedly “when are ‘the artists’ coming again?” After one workshop one of our patients said to me: “I didn’t think I would enjoy it, Loz. I mean what do I have to talk to artists about, but it was like they really cared, it felt like I was normal”.
I had to explain to this young man that he is normal, and that we are all more than the sum of our parts. Artists, just like mental health service users, are just normal people. We are all just human beings. This is a boy who has never in his life experienced art, who is barely literate, who has only ever known dysfunction and detention.
Beyond the beautiful works of art that are being created in our hospital, is the tangible sense of hope and empowerment that you guys are instilling in our patients. They are gobsmacked that anyone wants to spend time with them, and do something so beautiful for them. That you guys even cared enough to choose them to work with. Because these are people who are not used to being chosen to do nice things. They are not used to being seen or heard. That is why they cried during the workshops, because these days really have been some of the best of their lives. You have done something magical. You have reached the unreachable.
And that is where we begin to rehabilitate people who society has given up on. By seeing them, by hearing them, by understanding the complexities of troubled lives – being aware that things are rarely black and white. That it is possible to be both perpetrator and victim and finding creative ways of working with both identities in an empathic, non-judgemental, inclusive way.
By having people other than doctors and nurses come into our wards and telling our residents “we see you, and you matter”. Hospital Rooms is doing just that, it is not only rejuvenating the external spaces that surround our residents, creating therapeutic environments for them to heal within, it is also rejuvenating their internal spaces, their inner dialogues. It is changing their personal narratives, the stories that they tell themselves about who they are, and what they’re worth. So from Ash, Oak and Willow wards we thank you, with all our hearts, because what you are doing for our patients is best medicine they’ve had in a long time.”