DIMH 2018 Awards

The 2018 Design in Mental Health Awards Dinner, and a preceding drinks reception, were held in the Imperial Suite at the National Motorcycle Museum.

She said: “This can be a marvellous life-saving strategy as a child, but when you get older these strategies can become really problematic.” She added: “I began hearing voices a lot as a little girl, and indeed I still do so; in fact they have informed the talk I am now giving.”


Back to her early life, and Jacqui Dillon said the abuse ended when she was around 15. “However,” she told the audience, “one of the terrible things my abusers did was tell me that if I told ‘tales’ people would think I was mad, nobody would believe me, and I would be locked up.” When she had her first daughter, the memories ‘came back in a really dramatic and intense way’. She said: “I became very frightened that some of the experiences were happening to my daughter, when of course they were not.” ‘Cutting a very long story short’, she was admitted to a large psychiatric hospital in Hackney, ‘an absolutely terrifying environment’. The hospital had formerly been a Victorian workhouse – ‘a gothic-looking building’. Admitted to a ‘dilapidated and unwelcoming ward’ with curtains around her bed, the experience was immediately made even more traumatic by the wimpering of an elderly lady in the next bed. Worse ensued, however, when ‘the minute the nurse left’, a man in the bed the other side pulled back her curtain, sat next to her on her bed, and said: ‘Hello darling’, which she described as ‘a deeply disturbing experience, with a potential predator next to me’. She remained on the ward for five days, during which time no staff spoke to her, before being called into an office that ‘looked like a broom cupboard’ to meet a psychiatrist. She said: “Here, already starving myself, and highly anxious and distressed, I found myself in this tiny environment with just two chairs, which was really disorientating. I remember that the psychiatrist looked really disinterested from the start, but imagined, quite naively as it transpired, that he would ask me to recount what had been going on.”

‘IRRELEVANT QUESTIONS’ In fact, the psychiatrist hardly made eye contact, and asked her ‘lots of irrelevant questions’. “He neither looked at me, nor smiled, the entire time,” Jacqui Dillon recalled. “I didn’t feel he was much interested. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t told anybody what had happened to me as a child, I needed to get it all out. After about 20 minutes I interrupted the psychiatrist and said: ‘Can I say something please?’, and he answered ‘yes’. I then began telling him about some of the things that had happened to me as a small child. Although he looked really

shocked, he asked if he could ‘stop me there’, before telling me that the hospital ‘got lots of people like me’, who talked candidly about such experiences, but when they and the psychiatrists went on to discuss them further, the patients ‘realised these things hadn’t happened’; their recollections were ‘a result of them having serious physical imbalances’.” She remembers that the psychiatrist’s dismissiveness led to one of the ‘voices in her head’ suggesting, at this juncture, that she pick up a large filing cabinet and drop it on his head. Realising that no progress was being made, she asked if she could ‘terminate the discussions’, went down a corridor into a toilet cubicle, and ‘smashed her head against a wall’. She added: “I knew then that the place that was supposed to be providing me with safety and sanctuary was completely failing to do either.”

OPENING UP TO OTHERS This ‘awful experience’ did, however, have some positives, it subsequently saw Jacqui Dillon begin ‘opening up’ to other people – ‘my partner, my friends, and just ordinary people with no mental health expertise’– about her childhood experiences. She was consequently able to access therapy, ‘initially in a beautiful room with lots of space and gardens, completely kitted out for talking about intensely painful material’. During a lengthy recovery, she was unable to work, ‘or indeed to function’, and was regularly told by medical professionals that not only would she never recover, but also that she would never work again. To this, having subsequently enjoyed a fulfilling career, she was able to later say: ‘This just shows that sometimes the psychiatrists get it wrong.’

‘DOING SOMETHING TO CHANGE THINGS’ Of her subsequent career, she said: “I knew I wanted to do something to change things, and felt outraged at what had happened to me, which had added insult to injury. Services meant to protect the mentally unwell when the patient is in crisis had instead further traumatised me.” On commencing work in mental health, she soon discovered that when others tried talking ‘about terrible things that had happened to

During a lengthy recovery, she was unable to work, ‘or indeed to function’, and was regularly told by medical professionals that not only would she never recover, but also that she would never work

them’, such experiences would get ‘medicalised’. She said: “Mental health is still a massive elephant in the room. What I think we need to do is stop asking people: ‘What is wrong with you?’, and instead ask ‘What has happened to you?’ People don’t go mad for no reason. However, because mad things happen to them – and I know this because I have now worked with hundreds of people both here and abroad – no matter how extreme their behaviour seems, when you sit down with them, you often find that their story is filled with pain and loss.”


Bringing things up to date with a look at current mental health facilities, Jacqui Dillon said it was ‘not enough just to design beautiful spaces’, but rather ‘it was about what happens in those spaces’. She expanded: “People like me that discuss traumatic experiences are still likely to be given diagnoses, rather than safe spaces to recover and bear witness to what has happened to them. In my experience people are healed through the relationships that need to happen in such spaces.” She went on to refer to the ‘Madlove’ project, whereby another individual to have suffered an abusive childhood, James Leadbitter, alias ‘The Vacuum Cleaner’, had created ‘Madlove’, a long-term project that he says ‘attempts to re-imagine a mental health asylum by allowing people with lived experience to design space and activities that allow users to go mad in a safe and creative way’. Among the desired features of such a ‘safe’ environment, she said, were ‘little cubby holes and safe hiding spaces where those having understandable reactions to devastating and traumatic experiences can withdraw to’.

KEY MESSAGE REPEATED As her presentation neared its close, the speaker said: “We really need to stop asking people what is wrong with them, and instead to create safe spaces that facilitate people sharing sometimes devastating experiences. Please bear in mind when designing mental healthcare buildings that you are not just designing spaces to keep people safe and focus on risk, but rather spaces that create the potential for healing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider risk, but we also need to take a risk – to give people space to make mistakes and not simply for staff to cover their own backs. For me having the space within which to talk and grieve, and to express all the feelings I had about my childhood experiences, was key. I went from being somebody who felt shattered, to somebody who felt like a real person, and here I am sharing my story with you tonight.”


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