'My new life in Northampton was about to start after 10 years in mental health hospitals - then coronavirus hit'

Ex-St Andrew's Healthcare patient shares her story of life-changing therapy and getting through lockdown with a personality disorder

By Jack Duggan
Thursday, 13th August 2020, 7:10 am

March 2020 was supposed to be when Sarah Coulthard-Evans' life finally got started having got her personality disorder and self-harming under control.

The 36-year-old, who is originally from Wales, had just moved into a flat in Northampton after more than 10 years in secure mental health hospitals, including St Andrew's Healthcare.

But the coronavirus pandemic gave her a new challenge to overcome - living independently for the first time in a new town while being told to stay at home by the government.

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"Plans haven't gone to plan but quite often things haven't gone to plan in my life," she said.

"I've been living with restrictions for 10 years and it's quite similar to lockdown as you're governed by other people like doctors, but this time it's the government.

"It's quite disheartening as I came into 2020 thinking, 'this is my year.' Before going into services, I had some traumatic events as a child, but this is the best I have been in my life.

"It's hard when I thought, 'this is it, my new lease of life is here,' but things haven't gone to plan so I've used the skills I gaining to cope in hospital to apply to what's going on now."

Sarah Coulthard-Evans

Sarah's distressing childhood growing up in south Wales led to her self-harming and going into care before being sectioned following a suicide attempt.

She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which initially made her fight against the system designed to help her, ending up in Rampton Hospital, a high-secure mental health facility in Nottinghamshire.

"That was the end of the road for me - either I stayed there or I sorted out what was going on - so I engaged with therapy for the first time and that turned my life around," she said.

Sarah credits dialectical behavior therapy with helping her to understand and control her moods, which enabled trauma therapy to get to the root of her pain.

St Andrew's Healthcare's headquarters in Billing Road, Northampton

"I would recommend therapy to anyone with trauma or who is struggling as it can change your life," she said.

"Many people live a sad life and die without getting any help but, even though I've been in services for 10 years, I'm so fortunate for the therapy I received. I'm 36 now and at last, my life has started."

By 2017, she 'felt a lot better' and equipped to manage her behaviour and in 2018, she moved to St Andrew's Healthcare's hospital in Billing Road.

The charity has been under pressure to improve its services for several years after multiple critical reports from the Care Quality Commission.

Sarah was on the women's ward which was among those considered not up to standard by the health watchdog but believes they treated her well with some of the best care in the world.

"I think for me they did a great job but in every place that I have been, there's been room for improvement, there's always learning to do and you can't always get it right," she said.

Sarah praised the new leadership team and chief executive Katie Fisher in particular for making the changes that were necessary to help patients despite the reputational or financial costs.

She also warned against going simply on individual cases as they do not always tell the whole story despite how dreadful they seem.

"Things may sound absolutely horrific but you are dealing with some of the most poorly men and women in the country and you have to put in measures that don't seem right but they are there to protest the patients and others," she said.

"I think if you are aware of that background it's easy to judge that this is awful and couldn't be happening."

During her time at St Andrew's, Sarah started a blog about her life as a patient, considered to be a first for the hospital, and campaigned to raise awareness of mental health issues through the pseudonym, Welsh Star.

She believes people with personality disorders in particular get a bad reputation as dangerous or scary when they are generally loving to everyone but themselves.

"The more that can be done to campaign for people with personality disorders the better," she said.

"The more conversations are had about it and the more people share what it's really like, the more likely we will stop discrimination."

Sarah was discharged from St Andrew's in March and went into supported accommodation near the Racecourse.

Covid-19 put a halt to plans to look for work or get to know her new home better but Sarah thinks her experiences as a long-term hospital patient helped her to get through lockdown.

"I think there have been two sides to it: there's the side of living with mental health problems which has made it more difficult and I really worry about the impact this has had on people's mental health," she said.

"The influx services will see of new cases and people seeking support will be huge and overwhelming for services that are already overstretched.

"The other side is because I've been in services for so long, it's put me in quite good stead for staying inside all day."

Sarah said she made sure she went for regular walks around the park as well as doing something creative to get that sense of accomplishment - plus lots of Netflix and Zoom calls.

Taxis to the supermarket and prescription deliveries were handled by her accommodation so she did not have to worry about the essentials.

But she worries about how other may not have looked after their minds and bodies during lockdown, especially those with undiagnosed mental health problems.

"If we had gone into lockdown 10 years ago, I wouldn't have coped as I was far worse then but I have done alright, I'm quite able to look after myself and my wellbeing," she said.

"But a lot of people may not see how getting a good night's sleep, having good hygiene, eating well and getting fresh air have such a huge effect on mental health.

"I've found I'm quite resilient, in services you're always being tested by a lot of things and Covid is another obstacle - it's just about getting though it."