Another longer blog based on a talk, this time for Point of Care Foundation Community Conference on 27.10.2016
These days I usually introduce myself as a writer, coach and mental health campaigner. Sometimes I say I’m a charity trustee. I might talk about Grassroots Suicide Prevention and how we help to save lives by training people in mental health awareness and suicide prevention techniques. Or the Mary Seacole Trust and that now we have achieved a beautiful statue to the first named black woman in the UK, we intend to smash the glass ceiling that still holds back the careers in business and in public life of women and, even more so, BME people. Occasionally I mention my voluntary work with Time to Change, or that I am training as a Samaritan. And I might say that I love writing fiction, cryptic crosswords, cycling, making jam, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, the Archers, and my family and friends.
Only if relevant do I refer to my 41 year NHS career as a nurse and health visitor, then manager. I prefer not to be defined by what I used to do. I don’t want to live my life in retrospect. I may be over 60, but I feel I have so much more to do and give.
However, for the purposes of today, I need to explain that I was chief executive of a mental health trust in Sussex for 13 years, from 2001 – 2014. And now I am a recovering chief executive. I have Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists to thank for that description. And he is right; it describes me well. I have been writing a book about my experiences. I thought I had finished it. But then a few things happened and now I’m less sure. Nonetheless, I have insights I want to share with you.
The main one is this: please don’t do what I did as far as looking after yourself is concerned. I didn’t always make a good job of it. And it wasn’t only me who suffered.
It started with that over-developed sense of responsibility that many of us who choose a career in healthcare seem to have. We are often the first child in the family. If not, we are the one who looks after our siblings, even our parents. In my case, I was also the only girl. Being caring and helpful was expected, and the best way to evoke praise.
People with certain personality preferences have a tendency to choose a career in a caring profession. Another tendency of those with these profiles, and I am one, is to find it hard to say no. We also tend to take criticism personally, we can be overwhelmed by setbacks, and we can experience guilt more readily than those with other profiles. We are also find it very hard to tell others when we are not OK. None of this is set in stone, of course. They are only tendencies; one can learn to modify one’s responses.
The classic personality profiles for people in senior leadership roles are different. They tend to be confident go-getters, driven by vision, analysis and logic rather than feelings of responsibility. They like making decisions, challenging others and being challenged themselves. And so the tendency of leaders who do not fit such a profile is to try to act as though they do. And to pretend not to mind things that they actually mind very much.
I struggled a bit as a student nurse. But once qualified, I got huge satisfaction from clinical practice. I loved helping people, especially those down on their luck. I always will.
I eventually moved into management via a series of lucky accidents.I had no long-term plan to become a chief executive, even a director. It just happened. I fell in love with the trust I eventually ran because of a chance meeting with some adults with learning disabilities who I had known as children many years previously. Their care wasn’t terrible. But it could have been so much better. And then a senior colleague told me that mental health services were a backwater and that if I took such a job, I would never escape to do anything else. And that was it really; I was hooked.
For the most part, it was wonderful for me to be able to influence the care received by people who were usually at the bottom of the pile, to challenge stigma and discrimination locally and also nationally, to be busy and in demand, and to have the opportunity to work with a bright, engaged team I had the good fortune to build from scratch. Whilst we were all different, we each cared deeply about providing care that we would be happy to receive ourselves or for a member of our own family to receive. And when the care we provided failed, we minded very much and did whatever we could to put it right.
But I also got some things wrong. I can ignore details if they don’t tell me what I want to see or hear. And I wanted every project to go well. So I sometimes reacted badly when not all of them did. I was often overwhelmed by self doubt and imposter syndrome. I had sleepless nights, especially after incidents when things went wrong for patients. I felt very lonely at such times, but I didn’t feel I could tell anyone – I thought I had to tough it out. And this was counterproductive because trying so hard to appear competent made me less approachable to others who were also struggling.
I also wanted my team to be one happy, harmonious family. Without breaking any confidences, I would overreact to disagreements and try to play the peacemaker when what we needed was more discussion and debate. It took me a long time to realise that I had assumed the role of parent or older sister, when a more adult to adult relationship would have served us better. I am grateful to those who persuaded me eventually to see this – we got there in the end.
Although suicide amongst those using mental health services accounts for only a quarter of such deaths, it is, very sadly, not an infrequent occurrence. It took me a long time to admit to myself that the reason I found it so distressing was because I knew something of how desperate those who took that step must have been feeling. And even longer to admit it to others. Although I worked hard not to show it, I found it almost unbearable to be criticised by regulators or via the media for failing to stop someone from taking their own life. I felt guilty both that we had failed, and that I wasn’t always successful in defending the efforts of the staff, who had often kept the person concerned safe for many years and were themselves also devastated. I also know that the effort of hiding my own distress sometimes made me less sensitive to theirs.
Risk assessment, of which much is made these days, is an imprecise science. Some believe it has no scientific validity in preventing suicide or homicide by someone who is mentally ill. And yet people lose their jobs, even their careers, over not applying it correctly. They are judged by those privileged to look at the full facts of a case at leisure, with the benefit of hindsight. Rather than under pressure in real time in a busy hospital or clinic or on a difficult home visit. And without enough of the right resources. Families can be led to believe, sometimes erroneously, that a chance event that has changed their lives forever might somehow have been predicted or prevented, and that someone must therefore have been at fault. Unless NHS staff have erred deliberately or been recklessly careless, it is seldom the right thing to do to blame them, whether they are a junior nurse or a very senior manager. It is cruel and reductive and unlikely to bring about positive change. In fact it is likely to make people fearful and to drive poor practice underground.
I am extremely grateful to those who helped me to understand a more nuanced way of thinking about suicide, especially to Dr Alys Cole-King of Connecting with People, my friends at Grassroots Suicide Prevention, and Samaritans. I also thank John Ballatt and Penny Campling, whose book Intelligent Kindness enabled me to understand what was wrong with the traditional NHS approach to serious incidents, as well as a few other things. And to the Point of Care Foundation, whose outstanding work helps professionals to nurture their compassion and non-judgemental curiosity, despite the challenges of today’s NHS.
Some people reading this know that I saw my first psychiatrist aged 15, and have been troubled off and on with anxiety and depression throughout my life. I am still trying to make sense of why i felt so ashamed of this for so long, and how I managed to get through 12 of my 13 years as a chief executive of a mental health trust without blowing my cover. All I can say is that I am well-practised at pretending to be OK when I am not.
I eventually began to talk about it the year before I retired as my personal contribution to reducing stigma. It was even more painful than I had expected. I felt exposed and brittle. I couldn’t sleep or think straight. I was forgetful, jumpy and irritable and my judgement went downhill. I wondered if I was going mad, and in a way I was. I had such terrible stomach pains that I thought I might die. It would honestly have been a relief. And then I started to cry, and couldn’t stop. Driving home, I nearly crashed the car on purpose into the central reservation. It was only the thought of the fuss it would cause for others that stopped me. For the next 8 weeks I huddled in the dark. Slowly the kindness of my GP and psychiatrist and that of my family, closest friend and work colleagues made me realise that perhaps I wasn’t the worthless pile of ordure I had thought I was.
Although I will let you into a secret; it wasn’t until I had been back at work a few months and had undergone a course of therapy that I finally accepted that I hadn’t been faking my latest bout of depression. And that I wasn’t the selfish, lazy, waste-of-space I was called by a nurse when I made an attempt on my own life many years earlier. His words stayed with me because I agreed with him.
If speaking up was hard, going back to work in January 2014 was harder. But it was also part of my recovery. It felt liberating to be able to be open about why I had been off. I found conversations with clinicians, managers and most of all patients were deeper and more meaningful. I was a better listener, and I wasn’t rushing to solve everything, as had been my wont. I found that I could listen properly to criticism, and appreciate what the other person was trying to say without feeling the need to defend the trust or myself. My final eight months before retiring in the summer as planned were the happiest of my whole 13 years.
If you have the sort of tendencies I have, here are five tips from me to help you take care of yourself.
- When something goes wrong and you or those for whom you are responsible make a mistake, try not to be disheartened. Allow yourself time to process what happened and why. Apologise wholeheartedly. But do not be rushed into snap decisions. Treat yourself and your team as a work in progress.
- When someone offers you criticism, try hard not to be devastated by it. But also try not to reject it out-of-hand. Take it for what it is, just an opinion that may or may not be useful.
- Don’t pretend to be someone or something that you are not. It is exhausting.
- Exercise is important, and so is eating well. But sleep is healing. We all need it or we can’t function. If you are having trouble sleeping, then you deserve some help. This advice from Mind is a good starting point.
- Remember that being kind to yourself is not selfish. It is actually extremely unselfish. Because it is only through being kind to yourself that you can truly be kind to others.
It was Carl Jung who initially wrote about the wounded healer. There is nothing wrong with being motivated to help others partly because one has issues oneself; such experiences can help the care giver to be more empathetic. But if we truly care about others, as I have learned at great cost, it is very important that we do not pretend to be OK when we are not.
Because, as Karl Rogers, a successor of Jung said: what I am is good enough if I would only be it openly.