Three sisters travel by train to visit their brother on his birthday. The atmosphere is tense, see-sawing between sisterly high-jinx and outright hostility. The young women are close – ribbing and teasing in a way only siblings could – but they are also divided. Each nurses her own demons. Unexplained delays are frustrating, of course, but the way this particular train stops and starts is agony. Over the course of the journey, we begin to realise why.
Their brother, Michael, is not well. He's been sectioned after a suicide attempt, and placed in a hospital 250 miles from home. The birthday is an excuse for the sisters to visit together, to mark the occasion with a homemade cake, just like the old days. It's a long way, and they are already running late when the train is held at a red signal. Delicate nerves fray, frazzle, and snap.
A joint investigation between BBC News and Community Care magazine published this May shows that Michael's situation is far from unique. Data obtained via a Freedom of Information request reveals almost 5,500 mental health patients in England were sent for treatment outside their home area last year, a 12.6 per cent rise on the year before. Some patients had to travel nearly 300 miles. In a few cases it was so they could receive specialist care, but in many it was simply because there were no beds available closer to home.
When someone suffers a mental health crisis, hospitalising them hundreds of miles away can make a bad situation a lot worse, not just for the patient but for their family too. We never meet Michael. Instead Empty Beds explores the impact his ill health is having on the people closest to him. It exposes his sisters' sense of resentment, their fears, their guilt, and the fact they can't find the words to talk honestly about what's happening.
The play makes it clear we need to lose the stigma that persists around mental ill health, and not just for the sake of those who are unwell. It shows how hard it can be to cope when someone you love is suffering in hard-to-grasp-hold-of ways, and highlights, in fluorescent marker, how the strain is massively increased if visiting them is made difficult. (HB)
Empty Beds is on at 13.50 at Underbelly Cowgate until Augus 28th. Wheelchair Access, Level Access, Hearing Loop, Wheelchair Accessible Toilets - https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/empty-beds
'More mental health patients sent hundreds of miles': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-36333850
'Shunting people with mental illness across the country is utterly inhumane': https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2016/may/18/norman-lamb-hospital-beds-far-from-home-inhumane
'Carers, friends and family, a guide to coping': http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/helping-someone-else/carers-friends-and-family-a-guide-to-coping/
Campaign Against Living Miserably, or CALM, exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. In 2014, male suicide accounted for 76 per cent of all suicides, and is the single biggest cause of death in men under 45 in the UK: https://www.thecalmzone.net