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Prison is no place for people with mental illnesses. I know because I was in one | Bryony Friars



I arrived on the same day as Maria. She was shy, withdrawn and reminded me of a fragile bird as she leaned over her hot drink to keep warm. We would talk in the garden, the only place to find any peace, and fantasise about eating lasagne and drinking red wine.

We were in prison. I was on remand awaiting trial. I had been arrested while suffering a psychotic episode – I would be there for six months until the hospital order arrived from the court. It felt like six years.

Everyone had a sad story: domestic abuse, childhood trauma, homelessness. One woman, after losing her son, set herself on fire. Another, also charged with arson, set her house on fire during a psychotic episode. One had attempted suicide with her child in tow. I felt like the odd one out. I had a wonderful childhood; I hadn’t experienced anything traumatic and had never been homeless. But there is no stereotypical prisoner – you can end up in prison regardless of your background. What I did share with the others was that I was severely mentally unwell.

I was on the mental health wing, but there are plenty of ill people on the main wings of prisons too. A recent report from the Centre of Mental Health commissioned by NHS England found that 45% of adults in prison have anxiety or depression, 8% have a diagnosis of psychosis, and 60% have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Is prison really the best place for people who are mentally unwell? It is difficult to capture just how claustrophobic a prison cell is. “Lock-up!” an officer would bellow, and we would all rush to our cells. There it was just me, my thoughts and four walls. It was impossible to sleep, with the screaming and shouting of other prisoners.

Sometimes, when there were staff shortages, we were locked up for 24 hours a day. I have no doubt that the dehumanising nature of being locked away for most of the day made my mental illness – later diagnosed as bipolar disorder – worse in every possible way. I saw a psychiatrist who started me on anti-psychotic medication, but the delusions that had landed me in prison for arson in the first place grew stronger. I never turned on the television in my cell because my illness made me think the newsreaders were speaking to me. I was too scared to eat anything in case someone had drugged my food.

It is easy to fall into despair in such a situation. I felt suicidal. Two girls on my wing tried to kill themselves while I was there. They were found by staff in time, but many others are not. In the 12 months to March 2021, there were 79 suicides in prisons in the UK. The report by the Centre of Mental Health, which used research from the Offender Health Research Network, states that of the 285 self-inflicted deaths occurring in English and Welsh prisons between 2016-2018, 63% of victims had a mental health diagnosis recorded, and 67% had their reception screening carried out by a nurse without mental health qualifications.

Self-harm was rife. My mood grew so low that I self-harmed for the first time. According to government data, there were 55,542 self-harm incidents in prisons in the 12 months to December 2020, with rates especially high among women prisoners.

The only thing that made me feel any better was reading. I would read and reread Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, highlighting the words “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. Whether it was Frankl, Donna Tartt or Ian McEwan, books transported me away from my surroundings for a short while. One of the prison officers would bring me books, and chatted to me when I was feeling down. When he was on shift, my mood lifted.

When I found out that the only way to get out of your cell during the day was to work, I did all I could to get a job in the prison library. Prisoners feel worthless and hopeless, with little to provide comfort and intellectual stimulation. Books fill this gap. Some prisoners would come in for a crime series, or looked for prison diaries – perhaps to find out how others had survived. Others would lose themselves in a fantasy series such as Harry Potter or Twilight.

I remember one prisoner animatedly telling me about all the different books she had read while in prison. She was extremely well-read, and I presumed she had brought this love of reading from her life outside. In fact, she had never read a single book before entering prison. This is common. Almost one third of adult prisoners assessed by the Ministry of Justice are below the reading level expected of an 11-year-old. According to the Shannon Trust, which helps rehabilitate prisoners by using inmates who can read to teach those who can’t, 50% of UK prisoners are functionally illiterate.

Of the women remanded by magistrates in the UK in 2019, 60% did not ultimately receive a custodial sentence. According to the Centre of Mental Health, this can often do more harm than good as coming to prison, especially on a short sentence, as I did, creates a huge disruption to the life of people who are already extremely vulnerable and unwell. Being on remand is not the answer to an acute episode of mental illness. It is inhumane and impractical to lock someone up who is floridly psychotic; the solutions lie in a better-resourced mental health system that treats the unwell person rather than locking them away. Out of sight, the problem is still there: an acutely unwell individual in need of the right treatment and support.

Maria and I are both out now. I hope she is eating lasagne and drinking red wine. I hope she is free. I hope all the prisoners I met are now receiving the support they need instead of being locked in a cell surrounded by others who also don’t deserve to be there. I hope.

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year



In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart


17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus



Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer



Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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