Virginia Ironside: 'In the middle of the night there was a nurse to hold my hand ...'

Sunday 02 November 2003 01:00

The Priory hospital, because of its number of star guests, has become something of a joke. People imagine that if you are rolling in money and suddenly feel a bit blue for a couple of days, you sail off to the Priory in the same way as you might go to a health farm - for a bit of emotional pampering and attention.

The myth is a complete fiction. I've been in the Priory twice and, like most of the people who've been there, I cannot speak too highly of it. There comes a moment when you are having a crisis that you simply cannot cope any more on your own. You find yourself sitting alone at home crying, barely able to eat, with friends so worried they find your state almost as unbearable as you do. It was only when my desperate son actually said that it might be a good idea to go in that I gave in to my psychiatrist's begging that I admit myself for a while.

At the Priory hospital, I found asylum. I could give in completely, and just rest, cry and sleep. Even in the middle of the night there was always a nurse available to hold my hand. I was given proper treatment, and each day had some kind of structure. I found the presence of other people healing, too, people who were just as desperate as I was, and even worse. There were people who heard voices, who stood on their heads and muttered, who tried to kill themselves. I didn't see a single glamorous person there - and half the patients are, anyway, referred by the NHS.

No one would go into the Priory for fun. It is, after all, a psychiatric hospital, and the fact that it is a private and comfortable one doesn't make that fact any less stark. Even if the Priory's media image is ludicrous, the truth is that the group consists of 16 hospitals, manned by trained doctors, therapists and psychiatrists who have experience in treating tens of thousands of people who are mentally ill every year.

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