Interview: Matthew Butcher

Matthew Butcher is a former service user with experience of being sectioned against his will and of battling against the decisions of his doctors. Now a Trustee of mental health charity Hafal, we talk to him about his personal experience of illness and his aims in his new role.

When was your first episode?

I was seventeen and I was going off into Royal Navy. I’d passed all my tests, I was going in as an engineer. The weekend before going in I went to a night club, got extremely drunk, did a somersault and snapped all the ligaments in my knee. Unfortunately, because of all the complications with my knee – including septicaemia – the Navy said we can’t take a risk on you. That’s when I started messing around with drugs. I ended up disappearing off with travellers and living in a squat in London. I began taking drugs more regularly, including LSD.

When it all began to get a bit much, I jumped a train home, and got into a taxi. I didn’t have any money but I said Mum would pay the fare. But Mum wasn’t in, so I was taken to the police station. They put me in a cell, and like anyone, I don’t like being locked up. So I started kicking the door in. When my local doctor turned up, he said this isn’t the Matthew I knew, so he said they were going to ship me to St David’s for assessment. That was it. I was in hospital for seven months – it took me six months to get a tribunal.

It was a long time before you were sectioned again?

I got locked up when I was 26 or 27, after virtually ten years without any problems. It was all because the doctors said that I was argumentative. I had been unmedicated for a long time and was getting on fine – but I was told that I’d probably caused myself a lot of problems by not taking medication. Arguing with my doctors cost me five months of my life last time.

What was your experience of being sectioned?

I think the whole environment is anti-therapeutic. People are kicking off all around you. Then there’s the medication. I was on a tranquilizer which made your legs move and your jaw tighten, so I didn’t feel that I was talking properly. I’m not against medication, of course – it has a role for many people. But half the people you think are really mad, they’re not really mad, you’re just looking at the side-effects of the medication.

I can’t come up with a solution, and I would not presume that my experience – and my approach to recovery – are going to be the same for somebody else. But no-one wants to be locked up. Certain people need to be locked up. But if anyone is a bit high or scared and they’re told things like “you’re going to be locked up”, it could destroy them – particularly people who are quite fragile or vulnerable.

The scariest thing to me is people who come out at the end greatly affected by what has happened in hospital. They lose their bolshiness.

I have to say many of the staff are really great, dedicated people working for little money. That’s the thing – consultants earn a lot of money, but I spent more time talking to nursing assistants because all the top nurses were tied up with paperwork. And cleaners. If you want to find out how anyone on a ward is doing, ask the cleaner.

What do you think is the key to better services?

Funding. Where’s the money? I just don’t like the whole idea of scrabbling round for funding because if a service is needed and it’s said it should be there, so should the funds be.

With your experience of section in mind, what do you think of the draft Mental Health Bill?

The old Mental Health Bill says that if you’re a danger to yourself or others you might be locked up. My interpretation of the draft Bill is that if your doctor suspects you are leading up to a relapse, they can lock you up. I’m thinking that at the moment I’m a non-conformist, someone who will argue with the medical advice. If my doctors get that new bit of power they might decide to have me sectioned when actually that could be the worst thing for me.

What’s got you through everything that’s happened to you?

Help and time, patience and family have got me through the blips in my life, and I have caused lots of grief for friends and family which I’d like to say sorry for! But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and wherever someone is – in a hospital or just sitting depressed – one day, little by little it will get better.

I’m now a Trustee for Hafal, the mental health charity which helped me to find a way forward when I was a client of their local housing project. Mum was a Trustee and Treasurer before me, so I was interested. Mum said if you don’t get involved you can’t change things and you can’t whinge. I hope to light a fire under a couple of people in my new role. I hope I have a different point of view. I think one of the reasons I was bought in was to be a different voice.