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Personality disorder treatment in west Kent, how the Brenchley Unit gives mental health support

By Luke May

For people with personality disorders, commitment and emotions can be extremely hard to cope with.

But three times a week, 24 people come from across the county to meet at The Brenchley Unit, ready to confront their feelings and help get the best out of their time.

The NHS unit, hidden away at the end of a quiet road in Maidstone, takes members from across west Kent who live with various personality disorders.

The Brenchley Unit in Oakapple Lane, Maidstone. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011924)
The Brenchley Unit in Oakapple Lane, Maidstone. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011924)

For one, who asked to remain anonymous, the place has been a “godsend”.

She said: “This is the first thing in my life I’ve actually ever stuck at and taken to the end.”

There are currently 10 different types of personality disorder, and a range of different behaviours go with each one.

John Rea, Personality Disorder Service Lead and Dr. James Osborne, Head of Psychological Services. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011936)
John Rea, Personality Disorder Service Lead and Dr. James Osborne, Head of Psychological Services. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011936)

The 10 are grouped into three categories; suspicious, anxious and emotional and impulsive.

Each can display itself differently, though feelings of anger, anxiety and paranoia can be common.

One member told the Kent Messenger : “With me I was always in trouble, I didn’t know why I was acting the way I was.

Garden at The Brenchley Unit will be used during the summer. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011942)
Garden at The Brenchley Unit will be used during the summer. Picture: Sean Aidan (8011942)

“Then coming here and and getting into the programme helped me realise those problems and helped me get better.

“I don’t react as badly to anything any more. I don’t take things too personally either whereas before I would take everything personally.”

Another member added: “Having a personality disorder has had a massive effect on my life. I was in a very difficult place when I was offered a place here. Since I started I’ve seen massive changes in myself and how I react to things.”

Two dozen people attend The Brenchley Unit each week for support living with their personality disorder.
Two dozen people attend The Brenchley Unit each week for support living with their personality disorder.

People may harm themselves, abuse drugs or alcohol and may struggle forming relationships.

Dr John Rea leads the personality disorder service at Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, which runs The Brenchley Unit.

He said: “People with these disorders very often have gone through very difficult experiences early on in their life that have affected the way they relate to other people, how they deal with difficulties and manage their emotions.

“They’ve found ways of surviving that emotion which works for them, but actually have a lot of negative consequences for them as well.

“Typically it’s hard to form trusting relationships. They will keep people at a distance or get very involved with them very quickly and then reject them.

“The key thing is it’s their way of getting through and surviving.

“I think there’s a myth that people are doing it to seek attention or to wind other people up.

Psychotherapist Michelle Hodgkiss said: “Attention seeking has become a term that’s quite negative. But actually a human being will naturally want attention from birth.

“We look at it here as everybody deserves attention. How do we get it in a way that is healthy and appropriate for the people around us?”

Something quickly noted during the Kent Messenger’s visit was service users are referred to as members, not patients.

They take an active role in how things run at the unit. Their artwork lines the walls, leavers place farewell messages on display, on some days they even cook lunch for each other, therapists and volunteers.

Therapy involves small groups talking and will even use creative outlets such as art, drama and music to explain their emotions. One told us it was “like a family home”.

She added: “It can get angry or emotional, but we’re in an environment where we can explain those feelings. After a while we can all help each other.”

Such is the camaraderie many are hesitant to finish their time at the unit.

One member told us: “I don’t feel like I’m ready to leave. But I know it’s just my anxieties and my feelings behind it.”

Everyone is given support to find work, education and volunteering opportunities, with some even returning to the unit to lend a helping hand.

Everyone who spends 12 months at the Brenchley Unit is invited to spend another year at a leaver’s group.

They meet for two hours a week while they become a part of the wider community.

Dr Rea said: "Transitions are important points for everybody particularly for people who have those kinds of difficulties we do try and support people to move from that intensity of coming here three days a week to moving back out into the community

"For many people it's about continuing with some of their personal journeys the things they've been working on but also thinking about how they can make those steps into life outside these services.

"Whether that be just building relationships with friends and families or looking for opportunities to volunteer, education, work experience.

"If they do want to do any of those things such as volunteering or work placement she can help organise.

Some return to the unit not as patients, but as experts by experience, who attend the unit as volunteers at sessions.

Right now the unit has two experts by experience.

One member said of them: ""We're going through our thing. They've done the programme and they can see where we're coming from so they can help us get to the other side."

Another added: ""It's really nice to see they come in and they're so together, I look at them and think 'I'm going to be you next year.' It's so inspiring."

Michelle Hodgkiss, psychotherapist said: "Our experts by experience offer something that therapists will never be able to. A connection.

"A lot of people come here, they struggle maybe with people in positions of authority, they have had difficulties with trust with people in those positions before. Sometimes they can hear something differently when it comes from one of their peers.

"For the volunteers coming back here and being able to give back is almost like the last bit of their therapy."

As the spotlight continues to shine on mental health, this visit only goes to show the incredibly hard work that goes on without many of us knowing.

That hard work at The Brenchley Unit is shared equally by staff and by its members.

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