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Image of Nikki MattocksOlivia West / Nikki Mattocks / BBC Three

How it feels to be sectioned

This is what it's like to be detained in hospital against your will to treat a severe mental health problem

Nikki Mattocks, aged 21

Last year, Nikki Mattocks was sectioned after battling severe depression. Now out of hospital, she tells us about her experience.

I woke up at 11am. The first thing I wanted to do was have a cigarette. I wasn’t locked in my room, but I wasn’t allowed outside for a smoke – I needed to see a doctor before I could do that. The room was big but plain, with white walls. To my right, there was a green-y blue chair – it was heavy so you couldn’t throw it. There was a TV, a little ensuite bathroom and wardrobe with no hangers, just a couple of shelves. What was I doing here? I wanted to leave immediately. There’s nothing wrong with me, I thought. Eventually I realised I was wrong. The reality was I was in a very bad way.

I’m 21, and last year I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. If you’re mentally unwell, this legislation sets out when people can be detained and treated in hospital against their will. In October last year, the government announced a review of the act. In the last 10 years, its use has been increasing – over 45,000 new detentions were recorded in 2016/17 (up 2% on the previous year and up 47% on the past decade, with the caveat that the way these figures are sourced has changed).

I was originally detained under Section 2 which means you can be kept in hospital for 28 days. This gives doctors time to decide what mental disorder you have and if you need any treatment. Three and half weeks later, this was changed to Section 3, meaning I could be detained for up to six months.

Life had been good for the last two years. I was studying mental health nursing at Surrey University and living with amazing friends. I was independent and always had something to look forward to. It was the happiest time of my life. One morning in July, however, I woke up to a text saying that one of my good friends had tragically taken his own life. He wrote me a note, which said he couldn’t face his demons anymore. Everything unravelled very quickly after that.

Image of Nikki and pillsNikki Mattocks / BBC Three

At the time, I was on medication. I was taking antipsychotics (Olanzapine) and antidepressants (Sertraline) every day. My childhood was pretty horrific. Between the ages of six and 12 I was sexually abused by someone I knew. I was bullied a lot at school. I remember once saying that I didn’t want to be on this planet anymore – I was just six-years-old.

I suffered from depression and often felt like I didn’t belong in this world. But after a couple of years of intensive therapy, and the right mixture of medication, things finally started to get better.

Due to the trauma I experienced as a kid, I’ve heard voices (known as auditory verbal hallucinations) in my head for the last seven years. I can hear up to 20 different voices a day, but I’d learnt how to manage them. When my friend died, however, they stopped. I felt so alone. I stopped taking my medication and quickly became psychotic and suicidal. I was very distracted. I was laughing to myself. I was talking to people who weren’t there. This isn’t actually what I remember, it’s just what I’ve read in my medical reports since. When your brain can’t quite handle a traumatic experience, it just blocks it off, and puts it in a box in the back of your head.

Childhood photos of NikkiNikki Mattocks / BBC Three

Four days before I was sectioned, I’d been to see my care-coordinator. She’s a mental health nurse, who I check in with every one to two weeks in case I need anything. During our appointment, I couldn’t focus on what she saying. The voices in my head had started talking again and were telling me to kill myself. She referred me to the crisis team who visited me at home later that day. After 15 minutes I asked them to leave – I still didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. At 5pm the next day, a social worker and two doctors turned up at my house and, after assessing me, decided to section me.  

The nearest hospital was in Surrey, but I’d previously worked there as a healthcare assistant and therefore couldn’t stay as a patient. I was left at home in the care of my friend and (now ex-) boyfriend. The following day, an ambulance turned up at my house. It was the same two doctors as before, but a different social worker. I was in bed at the time, and I was angry. I didn’t want to go but knew that if I didn’t agree they would force me.

Hospital interioristock / bbc three

And so I ended up in a hospital in London. I arrived just after midnight on Sunday 15 July – and that’s when I was officially sectioned. The whole thing is very fuzzy. I was assessed again by a doctor, who started asking me questions about my history, and how I had ended up here.  

I fell into a routine pretty quickly. Breakfast was a no-go – I always missed it. I’d usually wake up at midday and go for a cigarette. I was obsessed with smoking, even though I knew it was bad for me, because you were allowed outside the front of the hospital. It was the only time I got fresh air; the only time I felt a little more free. Then I’d eat lunch and join group therapy at 2pm for an hour. Depending on what kind of week I was having I’d either go back to bed and cry or see a visitor. Dinner was at 5pm every day. 

As I was assessed as being at high risk of suicide, I was placed on 15-minute observations (when someone checks on you every quarter of a hour). I was officially diagnosed with three things: recurring depressive disorder with psychotic symptoms, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But I was still refusing to take my medication. You can’t force a patient to take antidepressants, but the hospital did (legally) inject me with antipsychotic medication once a month.

On that first Monday, my family came to visit me. They brought me a vape and a burger (I ordered a lot of takeaways in hospital). My dad had this look on his face, like he felt so sorry for me. He’s always been there for me. When I was ill as a teenager, he would drive me to London because I liked looking at the lights along the river. At the hospital he said: “It’s a shame that you’re in here, hopefully it won’t last long.”

Nikki in HospitalNikki Mattocks / BBC Three

Neither us knew I’d still be there five months later. I stayed on 15-minute observations for about five weeks, before being moved onto 1:1 (where one member of staff is with you at all times) for three months. I was self-harming and the doctors found out, hence the added security. Then I tried to end my life, and was put on 2:1 (two members of staff at all times).

At this point, I was on self-destruct mode. In the end, having two people literally forcing me to stay alive made me question my thoughts. It felt quite intrusive – I had to shower naked in front of them. I’d wake and they’d be watching.

At the start I felt smothered, but they would say again and again: “You should be here, you deserve to be here.” And eventually, it made me think, 'Oh, well, maybe I should be here?' I opened up to a few staff members, too. I broke up with my boyfriend while in hospital and one of the nurses said to me: “You might have lost your relationship but you can win your life back now.” That really helped.

After four months in Harrow, I was recalled back to a psychiatric intensive care unit (PICU) in Guilford. After a rocky start, I decided to start taking my medication again. I wrote a lot of poems and read Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. There’s a specific paragraph where he says there will be a time where you look at the stars and think it’s beautiful again, which really stuck with me. I also got in touch with my employer, who agreed to let me return to work once I got out of hospital. Whereas before I felt like I had no purpose, now I felt hopeful. 

I realised my only option was to get better. I don’t want that to come across in the wrong way because it’s never as easy as just ‘choosing’ to get better. Mental health is a very complex thing. It’s excruciatingly painful to make that step to choose to get better. It’s a choice to take medication, it’s a choice to talk to people, and it’s so hard to do that. To fight to stay alive? That is bravest thing any human can do.

Nikki now runs a support serviceNikki Mattocks

When I first left hospital I wasn’t totally recovered. I still had depression, but I was able to keep safe. And as I carried on taking my medication, things got better still. I moved back in with my dad. After five months on a ward, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was like, 'Can I smoke, really?' I felt like a baby going into an adult world again. Even the pavements felt too small.

Obviously I have good and bad days, but life is better. As a teenager, I never told my family when I was struggling, but I’m a lot more open now. I’m back working as a healthcare assistant and mental health campaigner. I’ve got a private therapist, which I pay for with my salary. I’m going back to university this year and I’m travelling quite a lot – I want to go to America.

As a child, I learnt to survive in certain ways – pushing people away or not valuing myself. Through therapy, I’m re-teaching myself that I am worthy, that I am a valuable and that I’m an important person. Being sectioned was a really horrendous experience. But, at the same time, I survived it. I’m very thankful to the staff for helping me get through it. I’m grateful to be here, and grateful to be alive. 

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.

As told to Louise Donovan