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Gaby: My son is being punished for his mental health

Gaby grew up in Wales, but spent 17 years in Yemen after being sold into child marriage by her father at the age of 13. She now lives in Bristol with her five children, including


Gaby grew up in Wales, but spent 17 years in Yemen after being sold into child marriage by her father at the age of 13. She now lives in Bristol with her five children, including Luke, who suffered brain damage as a young child, and has since developed mental health issues.

I have guilt over Luke. He hasn’t lived his life freely, and it breaks my heart. In 2011, he was sectioned in a hospital. I had a nervous breakdown myself. I tried so hard to deal with it, but I felt like I was never going to smile again. That was the lowest I’ve ever been in my life.

A few years before, he got stabbed in the heart. He survived, but the stabbing triggered off his mental illness. He started believing that his father has sent men to hunt us down in Bristol. He believed they were coming for me. He said he heard rumors that they were sending somebody to come and chop my head off, because when I left Yemen I was a wanted woman and we had to change our identities.

He started burying weapons in our backyard and under the pillows in our house. He just lost it. It took a lot for me to call the doctors after everything he went through, it took a lot for me to call them and say we need help. I had tried so hard to help him without him being sectioned, but when they did section him, they promised me that they would look after him and not hurt him.

I never forgave myself for what he went through next. At the hospital, they sedated him so badly. They didn’t at all take into consideration his brain damage when they gave him medication. They sedated him to the point where he couldn’t even feed himself. He couldn’t even chew his food.

One time, he escaped and came back home to me. I called the hospital and said, “Ill bring him back to you in a while, I just need to settle him down.” Next thing I know, my street was cornered off by riot vans. They had called the police and cornered my street off with riot vans. I was fuming. He’s a mental health patient, not a criminal. How dare they?


Denied his basic rights

He’s broken so many bones in his body over the years. Recently, he broke his hip and he had to go to the Bristol Royal Infirmary for a month. You have to give Luke his medication everyday and watch him take it, but the nurses weren’t doing that. So for that month when he was in hospital, he wasn’t taking his medication.

By the time he came home, his mental health was so bad. He was shouting and arguing and he set fire to the curtains in his bedroom. He didn’t do a lot of damage but I had to call the fire brigade. Then the police came out and they arrested him. They put him in Bristol Prison, one of the worst prisons in the country.

His doctors wrote a report saying that Luke should not be in prison, he needs to be transferred to a specialist brain injury hospital immediately, but there were no beds for him in the whole of the country.

He stayed in prison for three months. In that time, he was beaten, and he tried to commit suicide. It was absolutely horrendous. By the time he was transferred to a hospital, he was so damaged.

It’s stressful for me because all I’ve ever done throughout Luke’s life is to say to the authorities- whether it be social services, mental health services, the education department, or the police- that what you are doing to our children is wrong, and I’m asking you to change your behaviour. Take this opportunity, sit with me around the table and learn from your mistakes.

The hospital Luke is currently at keeps on saying to me that his behaviour is out of control. But they lied the other day. We were in a meeting and Luke’s coordinator was talking, and Luke kept saying: “Why are you lying, why are you lying to my mum? I didn’t do that, I didn’t do that”. He wasn’t shouting at her, he was just disagreeing with what she was saying.

The next day he was supposed to get what’s called ‘ground leave’, where they take him out to the grounds and he can walk around. His ground leave was suspended because they said he was shouting at the care coordinator in the meeting. I was in that meeting. My son did not shout at her, he only disagreed with her. If my son is not even allowed to disagree with anything that’s said, he does not have freedom of speech. He has told me on so many occasions that he has his activities taken away from him because he has disagreed or tried to ask them: “Why was I punished?”

I know there are a lot of things in his behaviour that need to change. He’s no angel. But his freedom has been taken away from him enough.

This hospital has tennis courts, a swimming pool, a gym, a music room, an art room, a library. But who gets to use it? The staff, not the patients. When my son first went there he had a 34 inch waist. Now he’s got a 43 inch waist. He’s been there for seven months. He’s clinically obese, because all they do is feed him four meals a day to shut him up.

He needs the right care and support. I asked his care coordinator, “Has Luke ever physically threatened you, or verbally threatened you?” She said, “No, but he’s so big. And when he stands over me, stares and nags me, he’s so intimidating.” And I said, “So you’re telling me because my son is so big you feel intimidated? By all means say you can’t cope and get somebody else. But don’t blame him because of his size or his appearance.”

It shouldn’t make any difference, but people judge others by the way they look, by the language they speak, by the clothes they’re wearing. It’s not a nice world we live in.

I’ve noticed Luke is one of the only boys at that hospital who has a family speaking out for him. There are boys that have been in that hospital for nearly 10 years who don’t have a family. They’ve been in there for 10 years. Why? Because they stare or nag and therefore are not deemed ready to be discharged? I’ll be damned if my son is in that hospital just because he stares or nags. That’s why I’m here, speaking on my son’s behalf. If there’s something that’s not going right, I’m here for Luke. And I’m always going to be here.

Protecting your mental health and equality rights

After arriving in the UK, Gaby was contacted by Sari, an organisation providing support to victims of hate crime, including racist, faith-based, disablist, homophobic, transphobic, age-based and gender-based abuse. Gaby cites Sari as a huge support in helping her find help for her family and trying to get the right mental healthcare for her son.

Liberty is a human rights organisation that worked with Gaby to research Sections 37 and 41 of the Mental Health Act, when healthcare services did not provide her with accurate information to make an informed decision on her son’s behalf. They are also helping because of the inhumane treatment her son received in hospital.

For more information about your mental health rights and various conditions, you can also visit Rethink.

Read Gaby’s story about surviving child marriage in Yemen here.

All illustrations by Adrian Bussone. 


1000women is a platform for minority ethnic women to tell their own stories, on their terms. To find out more about joining the team or sharing your story, write to 1000women@naz.org.uk

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