Photographer Alex Heron provides her thoughts and reflections, in writing and photos, of her time while under section at a secure psychiatric hospital for NOTION 95.

I took these images whilst under section at a secure psychiatric hospital in 2023. I had my mum sneak my camera in for me, largely because I thought that if I ever got out, I would want to maybe one day look back to feel some sense of relief and pride that I managed to hold on, to find a life outside again. I’m autistic, and living in the high pressured vacuum of London took its toll: the funny thing about being ‘insane’ is that you never really identify with the concept until you think about it retrospectively, at any given time, my thoughts and actions have always made sense to me – it’s only when I look back that I see that I was profoundly unwell.  


Being locked up and autistic kind of acts as an emotional oxymoron: meltdowns happen due to disruptions in routine, and being in a unit that took me away from my routine meant that I got in a cycle of meltdown that prevented me from ever leaving. I found moving to London so exciting, because I was finally able to exist in a sphere that made me feel like I was no longer ‘other’. However the paradox of being socially aware enough to know you’re getting it wrong, but not socially aware enough to know how to get it right crept up on me. I was doing fine until I suddenly wasn’t. Whilst having a meltdown, I was restrained by three male police officers and taken in a police cage, hours away from my home, then left in a cell with no concept of what was going on around me. They were doing their job, and were very kind to me, but screaming for my mother whilst being carried away is something I don’t think I will ever forget.  

Almost all of the women I spent my time with inside were also neurodiverse, meaning that we fell into the vat of the system. A lot of the symptoms of autism, such as having meltdowns, would cause restraint which then made it worse and counted against any hopes of leaving. The days were long, it was loud, it constantly stunk of urine, and the only thing to do was to colour in sheets of paper with frayed felt tip pens. All of the staff were very caring, and really did try their best, but a lack of funding meant that people are being locked away with no real move to resolution, it’s simply a place to house those that we, as a country, don’t know what to do with. 


I never thought I would ever release these images – largely because I know that this will be at detriment to future career endeavours – but I feel there is a responsibility to shine light, even in my own small way, on the unseen women housed across the country in these facilities, with no real way of getting out. I held my camera close and took pictures of what was in front of me and found solace in the muscle memory of using it, to remember the life I once had and maybe could have again.  



Being housed in such a secure way forces you to create a world within a world, and the women I met whilst there are imprinted on my heart forever. They were creative, kind, complicated and wise. I was surrounded by women with such incredible stories, with artistic and musical talents that I have never seen replicated or matched on the outside. I found solace in a new sisterhood despite the metal bars and locks: I will forever be thankful for the women that helped me along the way.  


It’s funny when you find yourself on the very fringes of society, because even whilst locked away from the world, with all of the other women deemed to broken to exist outside, I saw the very best of humanity, with everyday acts of compassion and love that healed the parts of me that no amount of medication ever could.