Life

I Was Jailed for Attempting Suicide

I survived that night, but I'll never forget being taken away by police during my mental health crisis.
LB
illustrated by Lily Blakely
November 25, 2020, 9:15am
A woman in a jail cell
Illustration: Lily Blakely 

Content warning: suicide, self-harm.

It’s the 15th of May, 2014 – the day I told myself weeks before would be my last. 

Dogs are barking and there’s blood in the sink. I look down – my feet are still planted on the floor. I am not happy or relieved to be alive. I feel like a failure. I think of ramming my head into the wall or finding a cave to starve in and live out the rest of my days, hidden and crazy. I haven’t felt hungry or tired or desire or tenderness for a very long time. 

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What I’ve felt, and what is now even more intensified, is the dull, unchanging knell of depression in my gut, clouding everything, making it all the same. I only feel the mush. The unabating hatred for myself, the certainty of death and cruelty, the aimless triviality of being alive. Everything is a paste. All of the horror and euphoria; the good and bad and boring has been smushed into ashen baby food. 

Long ago, I longed to feel the change and the turns. I longed to feel variation, difference. Now, my body curled like a kitten in utero, I long only for one thing: my mother. I’m crying for the first time in a very long time. I’m crying because I remember how it felt to cry for my mother when she left me for the day at nursery. I’m crying because I remember how it felt to nestle into her, her neck, the faint scent of laundry.

There’s the door. Three policemen walk in, they look up at the belt, then my wrists, then my neck. “Oh dear,” says one. Another takes out a clipboard. “Have you had anything to drink?” Yes. “Drugs?” No. 

I’m taken out into the corridor, police dogs trailing behind us, students in the hallway silently peeking. They put me into the police car. “Your hall mate reported strange sounds from your room, said you hadn’t been acting right, said you told someone you were thinking of ending your life.” 

Where are you taking me? “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.” Where are you taking me? “You haven’t done anything wrong.” Where are you taking me? “We need to make sure you’re in a safe place tonight. There aren’t any hospital beds.” Where are you taking me? “The police station.”

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They sign me in and store my phone and things in a locker. I am somewhere very far away from my body. When they look into my eyes, they must only see glass. 

They walk me to my cell. “Do you want any water?” No. I walk in, they close the metal door behind me. There is a slab of metal where I’m to sleep if I’m able, and a metal toilet watched over by a security camera. 

The closest thing I’m able to compare the cell to is the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) used for solitary confinement from Orange Is The New Black, though that makes me feel like I’m being dramatic. But I’m not. I’m terrified. I have terrible claustrophobia and I have no idea when I’ll be able to leave, let alone eat. 

Hours before, I felt desperate to die – to jump out of the burning building that was my body. Now, I have no other option but to survive this night – which is why my memory between the cell door being locked and being opened is blank. 

It’s morning. “You’re free to go,” said an officer, unlocking the door. “Want anything to eat?” No. I leave the building with no assurance of care or comfort on the other side, the sound of a cellmate singing Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” soundtracking my grey mile.

In 2014, I was among the 4,000 people who were detained in a police cell for mental health related reasons. That year, due to significant budget cuts to mental health trusts in the UK (an 8 percent reduction, approximately), police presence and intervention in these kinds of crises was increasingly relied on, leading to an overrepresentation of people of colour detained in wards and in cells.

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Today, anyone who survives an attempt to take their own life, will likely face the police. Due to substantial cuts to the health sector and limited mental health resources, the police have become frontline mental health workers. For many, it seems like a role they resent. 

My experience is certainly not exclusive nor is it exceptional. The police have taunted friends in similar situations. They laughed from on top of the cliff my friend planned to jump off. They told her boyfriend who called them for assistance that they were “wasting police time”. It’s a phrase my own family have heard several times.

The past 30 years has seen the deinstitutionalisation of care, which saw the removal of asylums, and a push towards community-led care, and the lowering of benefits and public expenditure. People suffering with severe mental illness have been handed over to the penal system, where police act as gatekeepers to what is sometimes called the carceral archipelago

Today, as policing has shifted towards a community-led approach for people with chronic and severe mental illnesses, the police have typically been the first and often the sole community resource called on to respond to urgent mental health crises. With very limited training, it’s their responsibility to either recognise the need for psychiatric treatment, providing that exists and is available, or to arrest the individual. But when crime and care are blurred, that choice is illusory. They both still share the same carceral logic; both lead to detainment.

The rationale for police intervention isn’t dissimilar to that of institutionalised care. Both dictate protection for those who cannot care for themselves, or keep themselves alive, and for the “good” of the wider community, this protection mainly takes the form of detainment.

In the years since my night in a small metal cell, I’ve spent nights in slightly larger cells on wards – with rotating arts and crafts schedules in the common room and TV nights on Fridays. In both cells, I felt like a burden to the world. Locked away, not for my benefit, but for the benefit of others. Whether you’re put in a cell or on a ward, you’re made to feel the coercive force of the police.

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When you survive your suicide attempt, you’re embraced by the world’s two extremes – love and cruelty. Your family, if you have it (I hope you do) will tell you they love you. They tell you that you’re not a burden, that they need you here. But when you’re taken away from them by the arm of the police, detained in a prison cell, or on a ward, you’re simply there to be stored. 

At a time when you should be treated with care and love, you’re treated as a safety threat. The only hope of changing this – of prioritising rehabilitative care over callous detainment – is by removing police and carceral logic from the mental health sector entirely.

Six years have passed since the day I said would be my last, and I feel relieved to be alive and loved. It took my own stiff-necked hard work to get here; it took patience and compassion from the people who needed me to stick around. It’s for them that I survived that night in a cell, and it’s for them that I survive each night hereon.

If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues in this article, please contact Samaritans UK, either on email (jo@samaritans.org) or their 24-hour hotline (116 123).

@emmamaddenUK