Homeless for Christmas

I can’t think of many things worse than being homeless and forced to live on the streets but it must be especially bad at Christmas.  When most of us are putting up trees and stringing up the lights in our lovely warm rooms many people are huddling into doorways trying to shelter from the rain and the cold.

Over the years in the course of my job I have spoken to a wide range of the homeless.  Being naturally curious (some say nosy) as well as providing the medical help required, I always like to know ‘how’ and ‘why’?  ‘How’ they have come to be living on the street and ‘why’ they are living like this.  The answers given are as individual as the people giving them.

Some are escaping from an abusive home and have slipped through the safety nets provided by social services.  Some have fallen on hard times and have been evicted from a previous home without the means to find an alternative.

In some of the areas I know that there have been emergency overnight shelters available but still a large number choose instead to stay on the streets.  Why?  One young lad told me that bullying was rife in these shelters – he went to one and was threatened with violence if he didn’t give up what little he had to the ‘gang’ which seemed to control that particular place.  When I asked about staff there he said that they just weren’t interested and left the residents to ‘sort it out themselves’.  He felt safer out on the street.  Another, slightly older person said he was banned from the shelter for smuggling alcohol and crack cocaine in for his own use.  His need to feed his addiction was greater than his need for shelter.  I can see both sides to this dilemma, it’s quite right that the people running the hostels want them to be clean and safe but I can also see that realistically an addict cannot give up his addiction just like that.  It’s easy to judge and say that he should just give up the alcohol and crack cocaine but addictions are serious physical and mental conditions which take time, will power and professional help to overcome.  And once overcome, continued support and a removal from previous lifestyle and influences is required to prevent remission.

Drug use is said to be widespread among the homeless.  Advice given by the council of my city is that we should not give spare change to individual homeless people as this will be used for drugs and alcohol, we are encouraged instead to support the established charities set up to help the homeless.  This seems a bit judgemental and ‘big brother’ to me.  Sure, some will probably use the cash to buy the next fix – but maybe that’s better than mugging and stealing the cash.  I’m not in any way condoning drug use.  I’ve seen firsthand the devastating and tragic effects of recreational drugs, I’m just being realistic.  Before we judge too harshly it’s worth asking my favourite question: why?  Why are so many using drugs?  For some it starts with a wish to experience an altered state of mind, some it’s peer pressure, some to mask or escape from the reality of their lives, including PTSD from abuse or horrific military experiences.  Once the addiction kicks in obviously it’s a desperate need to feed the addiction and stave off the withdrawal symptoms.

So what’s the answer?  How do we fix things and get all the homeless into some sort of safe shelter?

In my oversimplified mind I think there are two problems to tackle:

Firstly we need to deal with the people homeless now.  We need a range of accommodation options.  Different individuals have different needs and we need a varied range of support including drug, alcohol and mental health support and all backed up with a firm, safe yet understanding regime.

Secondly we need to prevent the next generation of the homeless.  I firmly believe that we should educate our young in how to handle life.  Give them realistic and healthy coping mechanisms for the disappointments and heartaches in life and try to steer them away from the destructive ones.  Invest in community mental health services so when things go wrong support is there from the beginning to hopefully prevent the spiral downwards in mental health which can ultimately end up on the streets.

So what can every one of us do today to help?

One positive thing is to acknowledge the homeless people you see.  Make eye contact and say hi.  If you don’t feel comfortable giving change, still make contact and if necessary say you’re not giving money today but hope that things will work out for them.  Most will appreciate being acknowledged and treated as human – it may even save a life!  One homeless girl I once spoke to said one day she had made up her mind to end her life as all she could see was despair and no future.  A smile and simple human contact from a kind woman passing by changed her mind and made her decide to stay around a bit longer.

I hope you all have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas and feel comfortable, warm and loved.

Suicide on the canal tow path

SPOILER ALERT:  Some readers may find the content of this post distressing.

 

It was early one spring morning.  Tony and I had been working the night shift, starting at 7pm the previous night.  It was 5 o’clock in the morning and we were looking forward to the end of the shift.  It was starting to become daylight and there was a mist: the sort of morning that usually precedes a pleasant sunny day.  Not that I was planning to see much of the day, I was planning on a nice long sleep today.

We had just finished our break on station and were wondering what our last job of the shift would be.  The phone in the mess room rang right on cue (this was the old days where control rang the mess room and a dispatcher spoke to us.  Now it’s much more impersonal/’efficient’ with a bleeping of our airwaves handsets).  The dispatcher said that she had a report of someone who had hanged himself from a tree on a remote path by the side of a canal.  The call may be a hoax, the caller said he was a cyclist who had run into the hanging body and then ended the call.  When the call taker tried to ring back for more information the number was unavailable. “Could you go and check it out please?”

We set off, Tony driving and me studying the map book trying to work out the most likely bit of the path to check and the best access point for us.  I decided on a car park where a road crossed the canal and the path was accessible.  The roads were still fairly quiet and we were there in good time.  As we pulled up there was a man sitting on a wall smoking a cigarette, his bike propped next to him.  He jumped from the wall and started talking as soon as I opened the ambulance door.

“He’s about half a mile up there. Just hanging from a tree.  I didn’t see him, had my head down.  I bumped into him, nearly fell into canal. It’s horrible.”

He was obviously distressed and I tried my best to be reassuring as I was getting equipment from the back with Tony to deal with a possible resuscitation.  I asked why he had not answered when control rang him back; I said it might have helped him by talking to our call taker as we were on our way.  He said he didn’t have a phone and had to flag down a car with a phone (hard to remember the days when we didn’t all have our own mobile phone).  The car driver had then driven off once the call had been made.

Tony and I gathered the three bags, cardiac monitor and suction equipment we would need if we were going to start resuscitation.  If it came to that, we would then have to figure out how to get the patient back to the ambulance – the tow path we could see was bumpy and narrow – probably too narrow for the stretcher.  However, one thing at a time.  We set off along the tow path.  The mist was quite thick here in the valley by the canal and we couldn’t see very far ahead.  The gear was becoming quite difficult to carry now, along the bumpy path and both Tony and my patience were wearing thin, made worse because we didn’t know how far we had to walk.

It seemed very quiet walking in the early morning mist; it would have been a pleasant walk if it wasn’t for what was waiting for us.  Eventually, slowly out of the mist a figure hanging from a tree materialised as we approached.  It was the most haunting and sad sight I’ve ever seen, still can clearly see it in my mind after all this time.  We found a male, in his forties or fifties hanging by a rope from a branch of a tree.  It was obvious on examination that we could do nothing for him – he was beyond resuscitation.  Once we had made that decision our priority is to shield the patient from public view as much as practical to preserve his dignity and to preserve the scene as much as possible.  Until proven otherwise we assume that this is a crime scene and it is important that crime scene investigators can gather all the available evidence with as little contamination by us as possible. We updated control and confirmed the patient was dead and we needed the police to attend as soon as possible.  People were walking past occasionally, we did our best to reassure and move them along, we couldn’t do much to shield the patient from view he was right next to the path.  About five went past before the police managed to seal that section of footpath.  Eventually a police officer arrived and we updated him as he quietly took in the grim view.

A small patch of grass had been trampled flat near the foot of the tree and a collection of cigarette ends was scattered around along with a few empty beer cans.  I couldn’t help wondering if the man had sat there smoking and drinking as he contemplated his life.  In my vivid imagination I could picture him there.  My heart went out to how dejected and desperate he must have felt.  Did he come there with the rope intending to end his life or was he just trying to walk off his depression and the rope was already there?  An innocent children’s swing which he had decided to use to end his life on a desperate impulse?

When the officer had spoken on the radio with his sergeant we were released from scene after giving him our details.  In cases like this crime scene officers would need to see the scene before the patient was moved to ensure there were no signs of foul play; the ambulance service would not be needed to move the patient, the local undertakers would do the job when the police had finished investigating.

I never heard any more about our patient, never got to find out his circumstances.  As I write this it is Mental Health Day.  I wonder if our patient was getting any support or help with his mental health? How long had things been building up for him? Had he tried to reach out and talk? Had he asked for help? Was there anyone in his life he could talk to?

I sincerely hope that eventually the stigma attached to mental health will be lifted and patients like this one will get help and support to help prevent such a lonely, desperate end to a life.

Mental well being

Hello.  It’s a lovely, sunny, Friday morning – just before a bank holiday weekend.  The sort of day that has us all feeling great, full of energy and excited and glad to be alive.  Right?

Unfortunately for many people, even a lovely Friday morning does not bring with it feelings of well being.  The Rusty Siren Statistics Department has researched a few unsettling facts and figures:

7.8% of the UK population satisfy the criteria for diagnosis of depression and/or anxiety.  That’s approximately 468,000,066 people in the UK who won’t be enjoying this lovely exhilarating Friday feeling.

In 2015 (most recent stats I could find) in the UK, 6188 people took the irreversible step of death by suicide.

Specifically to the UK Ambulance service, 91% of staff has admitted to experiencing stress and low mood.  91% of us. That’s such a high number it surprised me so I had to say it twice,   and that is just the ones who admit to it, the true percentage is probably even higher.

The effects fan out through the population, every ‘statistic’ above is a person.  People have families, friends and people who love and care about them (I hope!).  Obviously all these people also will experience a lowering of mood and increase of anxiety as they see the ones they love suffering.

What’s the answer?   There’s no simple, straightforward answer, I wish there was.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide then immediately go to your local hospital Emergency Department for an emergency assessment by the mental health team.

If depressed or anxious but not thinking of suicide then get an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to discuss a plan.  Meanwhile find the people you can trust and have a good talk with them about what is bothering you.  If you find it hard to talk to people (I know what that’s like, I find it nearly impossible!) then a good first step is to write it all down in a private journal.  Writing it down is an excellent way of clearing your mind and sorting your feelings out, then if you still find it hard to talk to your trusted friend you could start by getting them to read what you’ve written to start the conversation.

In an ideal world, once you’ve seen your GP you will be on a tailored plan to help you deal with your feelings and find a way to process them to get you back to a state where you can enjoy life and function once more.  Unfortunately we’re not there yet so it may be necessary to take steps yourself to get help.  Lots of resources are available on-line, two good sites to start off with are:

www.mind.org.uk

www.samaritans.org

Specifically for emergency service workers:

www.mind.org.uk/bluelight

These sites and the resources they link to suggest ways to improve mental well being and provide mental well being tips.

The most important thing is to be able to talk about mental health, and to finally obliterate the residual stigma associated with mental health.  Mental health problems are NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS!  The help is available we must all be willing to ask for it when we need it.

I wish you all a happy and safe weekend.