Saturday, 6 June 2015

A blog about Mental Health - My transition from Care and Custody

When I was 17 years old, I was in custody at Wetherby young offenders’ institution awaiting release. I told my youth offending officer that I didn't want to go back to live at my mother’s house when I was released. It was very clear to me – I had lived there in the past and it hadn’t worked for me. I couldn't see anything that had changed sufficiently to mean it could work this time.

My social worker had stopped all contact with me when I was in custody. No visits, no calls, no letters – nothing.  In effect, I had been abandoned for the second time by my corporate parent.  That meant that I had no social worker to turn to for help or advice at a critical time in my life, and nobody on the outside who would try to find a safe and supportive place for me to live when I was released.  

I longed to be released, and when the day of release finally arrived, the feeling of being released, of being free,  was better than any drug that I'd ever had before in my life.  Alongside the ‘buzz’ of being released was a deep underlying feeling that I would never want to experience any form of custody again. I had the 'light bulb' moment just after I had been sent to the young offenders’ institution. I told my friend in the court cells that I have ‘had enough of this shit’ and I didn’t ever want to be in that position again. We went to different jails. He got a longer sentence than me because he was 18 years old.

When I was released, I reported to the youth offending team office as instructed.  I was told that I was to go and stay at my mother’s home, even though I had told them that it was not what I wanted and it had never worked for me in the past.  I was told that was where I was to live - I had the choice of being homeless or staying somewhere that had never worked before.

 I knew it was going to be hard for me if I lived at my mother’s house not to go and find my old friends and slip back into the ‘revolving door’ of taking drugs, then committing crimes to pay for them.  That route would result in me being a ‘statistic’ - just one of the 70% or so that re-offend within a year of release.  I went back 'home' and as I feared within a few weeks I was told to leave because I was clashing with my mother. We had never enjoyed a positive relationship and I hadn’t expected it to change, but nobody listened to my thoughts, wishes or feelings.

I left my mother’s house and went to the housing office to see if they had anywhere for me to live.  They offered me a bed and breakfast room about six miles from the office. Nobody took me to visit, and I had to walk there. Within the first couple of weeks at the B&B, my emotional health started to deteriorate very quickly.  I was moved to a hostel, which was being used to accommodate drug users and other homeless abandoned care leavers like me.  I was only there about three days before I was taking lots of different tablets in a desperate attempt to end my life. I felt worthless, with nobody to help me apart from my youth offending officer who gave me an appointment of one hour a week. I was isolated and in despair because I didn't want to take drugs or commit crime. That would have been my easiest option to fall back in with the ‘old crowd’ but I wanted a better life than that.

In 2008 I was admitted to a psychiatric ward for three weeks with severe depression. I had stopped eating and I couldn't sleep. I wanted to pull all my hair out, because I was so angry, angry and frightened. I had no one.

If it wasn't for the hospital and the mental health team I would possibly be dead now. I didn't give up when I was discharged. I went back to the hostel and was given a place on a project a few months later. I was involved in that for six months, possibly the best six months of my life. It kept me out of trouble and away from drugs. I owe everyone there a massive vote of thanks for teaching me skills and giving me opportunities that I would of never have gained otherwise.

Being an unsupported and confused care leaver, I had never been equipped or felt safe enough to deal with most of my own demons.  I had never grieved for all the friends I had lost to drugs or who had given up and committed suicide.  I just got on with my life until my world was rocked again when my relationship with the mother of my beautiful son came to an end. I did not cope with the stress, and found myself back in hospital for seven weeks. Again I had tried to take my own life. My head felt like it wanted to explode; I was pulling my hair out and pulling at my face to the point at which it was a complete mess.  Again, the medics managed to stabilise my condition and I decided that I should dedicate my life to making a difference for others. I know that I can help others struggling as I did, using my learning from my negative experiences to support them to make more positive choices.

Then in early 2014 I found myself back in hospital again, this time for four weeks. I was suffering severe depression.  I just felt useless and that I was letting people down. My passion had over spilled at times but I wouldn't want to change that. This last experience of hospital was hopefully my last ever time, but I know that I still have unresolved issues from the experiences that I had as a child and young person. Will I ever fully get over my past? Probably not, but it isn't going to stop me moving forward with my life and making positive change.

My story is sadly not unique. Every care leaver has a different story, but too many reflect the struggles that I experienced, and too often they are faced with coping alone and without support or a safe and secure place to live. That’s why I support the ECLCM campaign to introduce the option of ‘Staying Put’ rights for ALL care leavers until they are at least 21 years of age.

Thank you.

Ben Ashcroft

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