How specialist therapy has helped a Cumbrian man overcome 40 years of PTSD.

A Cumbrian man is sharing his personal story of post traumatic stress disorder to make sense of his experiences with the hope that it will also help others:

After suffering from depression, and what he later discovered was post-traumatic stress disorder, for more than 40 years; 64 year old Jeremy Gavins from Ulverston now describes himself as happy.

As a gay teenager in the 1970s, Jeremy was given painful electric shocks  to ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. The effects of this historic treatment which is no longer practiced left a lifetime of mental scars.

Over the years Jeremy sought help through the NHS and through private healthcare however it wasn’t until he was offered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy from Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in 2015 that Jeremy has fully understood and accepted what has happened to him.

His full story follows:

Jeremy’s full story follows:

In 1972 homosexuality was illegal unless you were over 21, however that could not stop people falling in love. Aged 16, that is what happened to Jeremy Gavins. Jeremy, who now lives in Ulverston, attended a Catholic school outside Cumbria and hadn’t told anyone of his love for his friend Stephen.

He explained:

“When it came towards the end of the last school year and we were going to go our separate ways, I hadn’t foreseen that happening, and as it approached, I had a break down at school because I couldn’t live without him.

“There was no one to go to for help and if I had I would’ve been told off anyway, but because the breakdown happened at school, I talked about Stephen and myself to a priest.

“At the beginning of the conversation I said I was in love and the priest said ‘Oh everyone falls in love what’s wrong with you?’ And I said ‘I’m in love with a boy’ and then everything went wrong.”

The school headmaster said to Jeremy they could ‘cure’ him of his disease.

Jeremy said:

“What choice do you take when everyone said you were wrong anyway? I ‘volunteered’ for the ‘cure’. The first electric shocks were on the morning of the day I did my second A-level exam. Two hours after sitting naked in a chair getting electric shock treatment, I was supposed to sit an exam. How was I supposed to do anything? So I failed my A-levels because there was three days where I had an exam on the same day as the treatment. I failed all my exams and carried on this treatment for six months.”

During the treatment Jeremy never denied his love for Stephen but the mental stress he was under became too much.

“[At the start] I was in control. I was thinking they can do what they like to me, I still love Stephen but when it got more severe there was no way out. I couldn’t fight back [so] I went away in my head and thought of Stephen and left my body where it was. I kept doing this until my brain couldn’t cope with it anymore.”

During one session he ‘saw’ Stephen die in a car accident.

“I now know that my brain added lots of little things that had really happened  and my brain invented one little bit in that a vehicle ran him over and I believed that for forty odd years.”

Jeremy believed that he was to blame for his death when in fact Stephen hadn’t died.  In those forty years Jeremy suffered from severe bouts of depression. He sought help from his GP and was given psychotherapy more than once. He has also appeared on BBC Radio Four, BBC2 and the Victoria Derbyshire show talking about the historic use of aversion therapy (using painful electric shocks) in the hope of meeting others who have gone through what he had. In all those years Jeremy has only talked to one gay man who received aversion therapy with electric shocks.

It wasn’t until he was offered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy from Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in 2015 that Jeremy has fully understood and accepted what has happened to him.

He said:

“Eventually I got the EMDR therapy which was absolutely brilliantly successful and I’m fine now but I went through some very very dark times and from 2011 until 2013 things were really bad. I am actually happy now.”

Liz Bolt is the Consultant Clinical Psychologist who treated Jeremy. She is trained in EMDR therapy and she explained:

“This therapy was originally developed to heal the symptoms of emotional distress that have been caused by a severely traumatic event. It can be very successful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, which is part of what Jeremy was suffering from.

“Some of the therapy Jeremy had beforehand was also helpful, but in his case EMDR helped him to finally put to rest some of the trauma, and to make sense of what he had done to cope with it.   When people experience really traumatic events, they try and make sense of it at the time, but the emotions can be so overwhelming, that the “sense” they make of it can be wrong.  So they for example can end up thinking they are “weak”, or “bad” to have let it happen.

“In Jeremy’s case he even ended up believing that someone had died as a way of managing the trauma at the time. The faulty beliefs caused by severe trauma can stay with people, and affect the rest of their lives, and because when they bring the memory up it is still very emotional, they don’t manage to “update” it.     

“EMDR helps people to revisit the memory and deal with the intense emotions, and what the trauma made them believe about themselves, and so  make sense of it from a new perspective. 

“In Jeremy’s case he realised that the blame and anger he had aimed at himself for agreeing to the aversion therapy, actually belonged with all the powerful professionals that had abused him in different ways.  Shifting the anger to where it really belonged, allowed him to accept himself again. 

“EMDR is just one of the therapies available for trauma that is recommended by NICE guidelines. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is also recommended. In Cumbria people with mild to moderate mental health issues, such as PTSD, can refer themselves to a service called First Step. There are a number of evidence based options for treating PTSD and the trained assessor will discuss, with the service user, the most suitable approach to use.”

Jeremy’s story is now in a book which he started writing, in part, to make sense of his experiences. He hopes the book will help others:

“One reason for writing the book is to get my story out and another is I’m sure that I was not the only gay boy who was treated at my school like that. They knew too much for them to have done it to me for the first time so it must have happened before. Is there anyone out there that is still alive that went through that?

“There may be others who like me want to meet people who had gone through the same thing. I only ever found one and talking to him is very helpful. This man too has suffered from PTSD as a result of his aversion therapy. Maybe there are others out there; they don’t have to come forward or anything like that, they may just want to read of it and think ‘that happened to me, I wasn’t the only one.’”

Liz says the book also has a really strong message of hope.  “Jeremy struggled with his mental health for 40 years, but is now - in his own words – ‘happy’.” 

Aversion therapy is no longer used in this way and in October last year (2017) the Royal College of Psychiatrists named Jeremy in a statement apologising for the effect of the treatment. Professor Wendy Burns, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists has explained that this practice has been completely discredited. She said their first role as a doctor is to do no harm she said:

“We firmly consider the provision of any intervention purporting to ‘treat’ something which is not a disorder, as wholly unethical. Our position statement clearly states that homosexuality is not a disorder and should not be treated.”

“It is with profound regret that we hear of the lifelong impact that treatments such as ‘aversion therapy’ had on Jeremy Gavins and others. It is important to acknowledge that this was once standard procedure within mental health services, and indeed reflected a wider societal attitude of fear and hatred towards homosexuals.
“It is also vital to emphasise that times have changed. Studies that once purported to have a ‘cure’ to homosexuality, or indeed to classify it as an illness in the first place, have now all been disproven and debunked. Studies which once showed conversion therapies to be successful have all been exposed as seriously methodologically flawed. In this day and age, there is no feasible scenario in which a fully trained mental health professional would administer such treatment.”

Although Jeremy was given electric shocks, this should not be confused with ECT (electro convulsive therapy) which is an evidence based intervention for severe depression.  IN ECT shocks are administered to the head/brain under anaesthetic.  In Jeremy’s case electric shocks were administered to his body deliberately in order to inflict pain. This is very different. 

Although Jeremy never saw Stephen again and has since learned that he has passed away, he has never loved again, he said: “I don’t need to I still love Stephen.”

Jeremy’s book is called ‘Is it about that boy’ and is available to buy from ydp books

Further notes

There is a clear distinction between the electric shocks given to Mr Gavins and ECT. Mr Gavins was administered electric shocks to his body deliberately in order to inflict pain. This is very different from ECT (electro convulsive therapy) which is an evidence based intervention for severe depression.  IN ECT shocks are administered to the head/brain under anaesthetic.  They are not the same treatment. 

Despite being legal for those over the age of 21since 1967, homosexuality was still referred to as a disease in the statistical manual of mental disorders. In 1973 it was removed as a mental disorder and was labelled a sexual orientation disturbance and it wasn’t until 1987 that homosexuality was completely removed from the classification of mental disorders.

Dr Wendy Burn's statement in full:

“There are no words that can repair the damage done to anyone who has ever been deemed ‘mentally unwell’ simply for loving a person of the same sex. For those who were then ‘treated’ using non-evidence based procedures by mental health professionals up until as late as the 1970s, the trauma of such experiences can never be erased.
It is important to acknowledge that this was once standard procedure within mental health services, and indeed reflected a wider societal attitude of fear and hatred towards homosexuals.
It is also vital to emphasise that times have changed. Studies that once purported to have a ‘cure’ to homosexuality, or indeed to classify it as an illness in the first place, have now all been disproven and debunked. Studies which once showed conversion therapies to be successful have all been exposed as seriously methodologically flawed. In this day and age, there is no feasible scenario in which a fully trained mental health professional would administer such treatment.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists believes strongly that our first role as Doctors is to do no harm, and we firmly consider the provision of any intervention purporting to ‘treat’ something which is not a disorder, as wholly unethical. Our position statement clearly states that homosexuality is not a disorder and should not be treated.
Psychiatry is one of the most diverse medical specialities – which fully reflects the diversity of patients. For us, it is an honour and a privilege to get to know each of the individuals that walks into our workplace, and to understand their concerns, desires and ambitions; parts of them that have may not have been shared with anyone else. It is our job to offer non-judgemental advice to anyone who seeks our help, no matter their background, age, gender, sex, race or religion. Similarly, we encourage all those interested in mental health to choose psychiatry and take on what can only be described as one of the most fulfilling and rewarding careers.
The injustice of those within the LGB community who were treated as mentally unwell due to their sexual orientation alone is keenly felt by mental health professionals. We can’t re-write history, but what we can do is make it clear that today our doors are open and that principles of equality and diversity will be passionately upheld.
For anyone seeking mental health support, we are here. For anyone with a desire to choose psychiatry and support others with their mental health, we are here.
For anyone hoping to work with us to right the wrongs of the past, we are here. It is with profound regret that we hear of the lifelong impact that treatments such as ‘aversion therapy’ had on Jeremy Gavins and others.
It is with openness, kindness and humility that we hold our hands up, open our doors, and fight tirelessly to provide the ethical, evidenced-based mental health treatment that all of us deserve.”