Don’t ask me what’s the matter, ask me what matters: acute mental health facility experiences of people living with Autism Spectrum Conditions
Background This qualitative study explored how mental health inpatients with autistic spectrum conditions experience and cope with anxiety when admitted to an acute mental health inpatient facility in the UK. Anxiety is a common characteristic for people who live with autistic spectrum conditions and whilst a plethora of studies on anxiety in this population are published which correlate anxiety with mental health service experience, little is known about the actual triggers of anxiety and its manifestations. Despite growing acknowledgement that admission to acute mental health facilities should be a last resort, reported admissions continue to rise (NICE, 2014). This study adds to a body of evidence which considers anxiety experienced by people with autism. The rationale for this paper includes the need to heighten mental health practitioners’ understanding, of the responses, motivations to engage and support required to overcome fears and anxieties when admitted to a mental health inpatient unit. Method The study used a qualitative naturalistic research design, to explore the emotional and psychological experiences of being a mental health inpatient living with an autistic spectrum condition. During 2015-2017 audio-recorded semi-structured interviews captured the experiences of 20 adults from the East of England who were former psychiatric inpatients with an established diagnosis of autistic spectrum condition. Interpretative phenomenological analysis enabled the identification of broad themes which explained in rich detail, participant reflections regarding the situations and events within the acute care mental health facility that triggered their anxiety, manifestations of anxiety and, responses to their anxiety. Findings Broad response patterns were identified that could be associated with their anxiety i.e. isolating themselves from others, including patients and staff, ceasing to eat and sleep adequately and all too often self-harming or exhibiting aggressive and violent responses. Conclusions The anxiety caused by the physical environment appears to be overlooked by mental health practitioners so attention to anxiety inducing encounters is needed when planning acute care mental health service improvement and research is required to clearly understand the experiences of this vulnerable group.