I don’t believe anyone is inherently evil. However we live in a world where people are committing some pretty heinous crimes and our newspapers are often linking stigmatic words such as ‘mental’, ‘crazy’ or ‘loner’ to these crimes when reporting. Frequently implying that those who commit crimes or who are seen as negative members of society must be mentally unwell is a belief that I have come to learn many people hold.
So if people aren’t born bad, do they become evil? As much as I battle internally with the idea that society can create an ‘evil’ person it seems to be the only option as I so passionately believe that none of us are innately bad. However, the longer I find myself working alongside these so called ‘monsters’, the more I am coming to believe that society does have the power to influence us in such a negative way. So many are themselves victims of crime or a product of a system that failed them. We as a community have let them down and we are now punishing them for our own wrong-doings.
My experience in the world of forensic mental health is very much in its infancy and I’m yet to experience many of the more challenging environments that some of my colleagues have worked in. However, I have had the opportunity to work at one of the most notorious mental health hospitals in the country and am now lucky enough to work in the community helping to rehabilitate young offenders. So, although I am still very new to this career I have had the chance to work with some of the most notorious criminals and some of our countries most unwell patients.
Despite being a mere three years into my career I feel that I am already hugely desensitised to crime. I’ll hear stories about vicious murders, huge heists or violent assaults and often find myself thinking ‘it could be worse’. However, I am not sure I will ever desensitise towards some of the trauma, the life experiences and the internal turmoil that many of my patients have survived and still live daily. Many of them attribute their mental health struggles to a significant past life event, their upbringing or their extensive drug use rather than believing they might have had a mental health disorder, regardless of these ‘nurture’ aspects to their lives.
My job has always been to look after my patient’s mental health, regardless of if they are guilty or innocent of their crimes and regardless of what that crime is. I find it strangely easy to almost ignore their forensic history and I like to sit down with my patients, acknowledge their social and mental health histories and identify how I can help and move their lives forward.
Throughout my short career as a mental health professional within forensic institutions the part of caring for these people that has stood out the most to me is that they just want to be listened to. So often they have been dismissed, pushed to the side and ignored, that once you show you’re more than willing to listen they, and excuse the pun, spill the beans. Being this listening ear could range from hearing a patient rant about breakfast to hearing about another patient’s latest delusional thought process. No conversation is ever the same. In the secure hospital our patients were away from their families and friends and as they often don’t trust each other, they rely on the staff to act as that companion. As well as being listened to, they also wanted to listen to me. They had access to two newspapers a day and the TV but we were really their only tangible connection to the ‘outside world’.
While learning that patients often want to be listened to, I also learnt that being listened to is one of the most effective ways to support their mental health. It gives them the opportunity to express themselves to someone who isn’t a family member, a teacher or a friend who might already know their situation like the back of their hand. They are able to talk to someone who doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of their life and only needs to know the important impacts of their mental health. They are able to maintain a component of mystery around themselves and their lives that leave them with an element of control, which is often forcibly removed from them in the criminal justice system.
I started my career in forensic psychology as I wanted to make a difference, even if that was helping one person or one family. Once I got the taste for helping others, I wanted to help everyone. Often this can play to the detriment of my own wellbeing. I sometimes find myself feeling incredibly stressed and I can attribute a lot of my stress to the fact that I want to help but sometimes can’t, or the patient doesn’t want to accept my help, then I feel I have let them down. These negative thoughts can sometimes find their way into my mind but it’s important to not let them affect me.
However, I was told very early on in my career a phrase that has stuck with me; ‘If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete’. Luckily, mental health services are well aware of the impact of our profession on their staff, so we have several essential and compulsory ‘spaces’ to help alleviate our stress and talk through our concerns. These spaces are vital and help me develop my self-compassion and to look after myself. At the end of the day, I’ve learnt I can’t help others if I’m not 100%.
This article was written anonymously
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