Last night, I glanced through a well-written Guardian Healthcare piece about the distress experienced by a psychologist over the death by suicide of a patient. It touched a nerve deep in me, and I tweeted this:
Those who rush to judge mental health staff should read this honest piece. In my exp, every loss is as keenly felt
It got 15 retweets, 9 likes, some positive comments from people who work in mental health services but also a few more questioning ones from people who I would describe as experts by experience. And it was these, plus my initial reaction to the article, that have had me thinking rather hard over the past 24 hours.
I want to make some unequivocal apologies:
- I am sorry for my initial tweet. It is sadly not true that all such deaths are so keenly felt. Many are, but by no means all. I desperately wish they all were.
I apologise to all those staff at the mental health trust I once ran who experienced the death by suicide of a patient and who didn’t get the support they needed to help them cope with such a loss or learn valuable lessons that would help them and other patients in the future. Despite my sincere wishes otherwise, I wasn’t always as consistently effective as I intended to be in this regard. I am so sorry for this.
The people I was referring to who “rush to judgement” and look for people to blame after a death by suicide are NOT people who have experienced care, good or poor, or their families. In my not inconsiderable experience, such people are often the most moderate, thoughtful and compassionate towards the staff. Those who DO rush to judgement are some, not all, of the media; some, not all, politicians; and a tiny but vociferous minority of the general public. It can nevertheless feel overwhelming to be under such an onslaught. I have experience of this. But I should have made what I tweeted clearer. I am really sorry that I didn’t, because I upset and hurt people whose feelings matter very much to me. I may have done so inadvertently, but I was careless. And I am truly sorry.
This stuff is particularly painful to me because of my own experiences many years ago when I made an attempt at suicide. What the nurse in A and E said to me, that I was selfish and a waste of space and keeping him away from patients who were really ill, had a deep and lasting impact. It took many years before I confronted my shameful secret and quite a few more before I came to accept that he had been wrong. So I am especially sorry that my tweet wasn’t well-constructed. Of all people, I should know better.
It was after I returned to work in 2014 after my worst-ever depressive breakdown that I fully confronted the reality that staff who work in mental health are not all as compassionate as we might hope. There are many wonderful people, but there is still some downright cruelty, some poor attitudes and practices and some not inconsiderable compassion fatigue. I have written about this and my contribution to changing things here and about how challenging it is here. Today, we had a really good, honest project working group meeting, which I chair. This is extraordinarily difficult stuff. It cuts to the heart of things that matter deeply to me and to all the others around the table. So I am especially sorry about my tweet. As a writer, I should be more precise and thoughtful. As a chair, I have responsibilities. As a human, I should have taken more care.
I thought about just deleting the tweet. But that won’t make what happened go away. An unequivocal apology seems a better response. That, plus continuing the work with Time to Change to tackle what we know from countless surveys to be true, that stigma and discrimination are still alive and kicking within mental health services. And if we allow ourselves or anyone else to go la-la-la-la-We’re-not-listening, we, indeed I, are/am complicit in letting it continue.
You will be hearing more on this from me and others in due course. Our work will, I hope, feature in the upcoming Mental Health Taskforce report and in the future work plans for Time to Change.
The death of anyone by suicide casts a long and painful shadow. It is right and to be expected that staff should feel distressed. But they also need compassionate support so they are able, eventually, to carry on being compassionate themselves. And the ones who can’t be compassionate need to be helped to find something else to do.
One of my big lessons in life has been that I can’t be truly compassionate towards others if I am not compassionate towards myself. This means forgiving myself for making mistakes. I hope the people who I carelessly hurt by my tweet will forgive me too. Eventually.
PS In fact, within a couple of hours of posting this I had heard from all those mentioned. I feel deeply blessed to know such kind and forgiving people :):):)