Indefinite isolation is anything but a ‘new normal’ for the thousands of patients diagnosed with mental illnesses cooped up in 60 medium-secure mental health hospitals dotted across England and Wales. The majority know neither when they will be discharged, nor what specifically they need to demonstrate in order to regain their liberty. Mental Health Today spent time with a handful of patients just prior to the wider world falling under a desperate lockdown of its own. This interview is the first of our new In Secure series. 

“Let me hit you with this one,” Lucas challenges me. “If I've got a piano… If we've got a piano here, and a piano there, on the other side of the room… If I hit the C-note on one piano, the string on the C-note on the other piano will vibrate too, without me touching it. Because it's in tune with the same frequency. And I believe whatever you attune yourself with, you can connect to.”

Lucas is in his early-20s, a restless amateur boxer with a one-step-ahead grin and sleepless eyes. His first words upon our meeting were to politely ask if we could carry out his own interview before I speak to others on the ward. He had “other places” he needed to be soon. We are in a medium-secure hospital: there is a limit to how many destinations he has scope to experience today and all are within the grounds of this remote facility in the countryside. The hospital running club will assemble again tomorrow and it won’t be exploring a new route. The astroturf football pitch hasn’t been booked. That’s about it.

Lucas’ brain is busier than he is however. The Londoner doesn’t like to sit still. His fellow patients are more than happy to let their friend speak first, to let the youngest one in the gang empty his mind a little. They have all afternoon to kill. Moreover, having just been 'subdued' by the post-lunch medication round, they are more accommodating than I’m told they might have been had I met them at a less benign hour than that deliberately selected by the hospital’s NHS Trust press officer.

Attracting positivity

Lucas is a man in hurry today but he tells me this is not how he’s always been.

“I was in a high-secure unit,” he recalls. “So my life [back then] was pretty much over. And then something – a lot – happened on one day. It was a collection of coincidences and it set me down a path towards [subscribing to the theory of] the law of attraction, positivity and re-wiring the brain.”

The Law of Attraction is the belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into a person's life. The belief is based on the ideas that people and their thoughts are made from "pure energy", and that a process of like energy attracting like energy exists through which a person can improve their health, wealth, and personal relationships.

Lucas is describing coming off nine months in seclusion at Ashworth, one of England’s three High-Security Forensic Psychiatry Units. The 800 patients in these facilities live under the same conditions as those of Category B prisoners: i.e. those serving sentences of 10 years or more for whom “escape needs to be made very difficult”. Suffice to say, sources of positive energy tend to be thin on the ground.

“I think it’s widely recognised that there are lot of people in prisons waiting for [mental health] beds,” Lucas’ support worker says, her smile acknowledging how understated this will sound in print. “Somebody can improve and they can start really engaging and, you know, settling in their mental health.”

Lucas continues: “Three things then happened, all at the same time. My psychologist said something to me: I learned about ripple effects. Then I heard this thing ‘Law of Attraction’ from [Mixed Martial Arts Champion] Conor McGregor.

“I then had this weird meditation, the first I’ve ever experienced.”

“Bam bam bam.”

“Then all of a sudden my friend sent me this book in: ‘The key to the Law of Attraction’. It got censored by default.”

The sender was “a complete random one, I hadn't heard from him for years. I'd just heard about [the Law of Attraction theory] the day before, then all of a sudden I'd got a book about it. I never asked for it! The key to living, it said: you gotta write goals. I thought, ‘let me try that’. Be positive. I wanna better myself, get out of high-secure. And I did.”

“I started writing all these goals. I kept ticking them. Small things, big things. I keep ticking them still.”

Switching lanes

It’s rapid speech now. Having begun our conversation with blokey, fairly empty talk about boxing and MMA, Lucas has become more animated for switching lanes, expanding on the intersection between physics and philosophy.

Lucas credits the transformation of his prospects to taking ownership of his mindset, visualising a specific future for himself that once looked unthinkable after an experience involving interaction with the criminal justice system that remains unnamed throughout our conversation.

The mentality shift was cemented under the mentorship of a German artist employed by Hospital Rooms, a charity that empowers in-patients to express themselves through artwork co-produced with professional artists that is then curated on the walls and corridors of unit wards.

“Lothar looks at buildings, these plain buildings, and then he visualises what he's trying to do,” explains Jacob. “He sits there all day and you see him having a cup of tea, and he says he has to visualise it all, how it can look.”

Together Lothar and Lucas collaborated on a sketch, a brushstroke tribute made from black paint, of the Irish fighter McGregor. It carries the motif: 'I see something in my head, and then it happens'.

I ask Lucas what he visualises for himself. “I have this dream in my head. It's not really a dream, it's a vision: I'm going to make it happen. I see it, I visualise it. I want to compete again, this year. I will fight again this year, 2020. I’m due for release in a couple of months. You can’t let other people’s opinions stand in your way.”

The names of those interviewed for Mental Health Today’s In Secure series have been changed to maintain anonymity for all involved.