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December 2015

‘How one mental health social worker helped me through my psychosis’

A member of Think Ahead’s Service User and Carer Reference Group speaks out about his experience of mental health problems.

My name is Ziaul. I’m 32 years old, from the West Midlands, and have a range of interests including the gym, eating out, pool and snooker, travelling, hanging out with good close friends, and spending time with my family. But it wasn’t always this way.

From before I was a teenager I can remember something wasn’t quite right. I was really shy and scared to talk to people. I’d avoid group situations, reading aloud in class, or giving presentations, by bunking off school. And, because I was ashamed of my body during puberty, I avoided PE lessons too. Teachers and friends thought I was being lazy, but I felt like I was trapped in a body that wasn’t mine.

In my later teens this would become much worse as I developed paranoia and agoraphobia, and became seriously depressed. In my first job I started drinking to get me through the day; my boss knew but he didn’t mind – he found me more fun to be around as I was more outgoing and always cracking jokes.

Experiencing psychosis

Yet the ‘fun’ didn’t last for long and, eventually, after my problems escalated at university, I experienced what’s known as psychosis – essentially a disconnect from reality – which led to me being detained under the Mental Health Act. It was absolutely terrifying.

It was pretty severe. I didn’t know what was happening. I kept thinking ‘am I in a coma?’ or ‘am I in purgatory?’ I felt I had to choose between heaven and hell – did I believe in religion or evolution? I thought my family were in fact actually scientists and psychologists, that every TV programme was directly aimed at me, and that video cameras were recording my whole life. At one point I thought I was going to be executed – at others I felt trapped somewhere between The Matrix and The Truman Show. One night I even felt like I was being operated on by knives, saws, and other sharp objects.

But my family, along with professionals, helped me through. Once detained in hospital I was assigned a Community Psychiatric Nurse who was amazing and helped me massively. We developed a good relationship, despite me being rather rude to her at first and not trusting her due to my psychosis! She saw me regularly throughout my three year recovery period and was very easy to talk to.

Not all the professionals were that positive, though – I found some of the GPs, counsellors, and other support workers lacked a lot of understanding. For instance, one of the mental health workers at the walk-in centre kept talking to me about smoking weed (which I don’t do!) and how it may affect my life insurance! He then referred me to the surgery worker who also didn’t understand and thought it was just insecurity. Then whenever I was visited at home by the crisis / home treatment team it was a different person each time – hardly ideal for someone in my position.

My social worker

But one of the most significant people I worked with was a social worker. He was actually the one who had me sectioned (although I didn’t know what was happening at the time). He saw me in hospital and stayed with me for hours. It was he who discovered my abnormal thoughts by actually listening to what I was saying. He was much more personable and personal than the other professionals. His patience with me was the reason I eventually opened up slightly – he made me feel at ease even though my mind was rushing and I couldn’t focus on anything.

The social worker had a whole host of qualities which I warmed to and this helped us form a strong relationship. He was calm, friendly, professional, personable, and respectful. He spoke to me in a way that made me feel comfortable, asked questions without being too intrusive, and never made me feel like he was judging me. While the medics could be a bit intrusive and impersonal – I sometimes felt they were treating me like an illness – the social worker was the exact opposite. That social worker – along with my family who have been amazing – helped me turn my life around. And while it can be challenging living with Schizoaffective Disorder, it has been a lot more manageable since my diagnosis.

Supporting mental health charities

Since my diagnosis I’ve had so many positive moments and the experience has given me an aim and one particular passion: to work in the mental health field. That’s why I’ve been working with organisations such as Rethink Mental Illness, Mind, McPin Foundation, Time to Change, and, this year, Think Ahead – where I’ve supported the development of the programme. My overriding hope is that we can attract more great people to become mental health social workers, and that I can help all mental health social workers to know just how much they are appreciated.