courage

A bit of courage

The more worried I feel about expressing my views on a particular topic, the more interest a blog seems to generate.

I’ve written this in anticipation of the Mental Health Taskforce Report, finally due out next week. Although, I’m unsure what you’ll think, I feel the need to say some things I could not have said when I was doing my old job running mental health services.

  1. Mental health services are undoubtedly scary. But they are not all the same. The atmosphere and standard of care even on different wards in the same hospital can vary widely. It depends on the expertise and most of all the compassion of the doctors, nurses and the people in charge. If you have had a poor experience of care, either as a patient or a family member, that is terrible. It is vital that we face the fact that 1 in 3 people say they experience stigma within services. The Time to Change project I’ve been chairing addresses this, with more to report later this month. But at the same time, we must do all we can not to terrify people who need treatment. The chances are they will receive care that will really help. And if they start out assuming the worst, it will be even harder for the staff working with them to establish a therapeutic relationship. And this is the most valuable treatment tool available. I know this from personal experience.
  2. The standard and availability of care in mental health services also depends on the attitudes and expertise of those running and commissioning these services. There is a real and present danger that, faced with wicked choices of saving vast sums of money from the NHS, commissioners look to make savings which will cause the the least outcry, ie from mental health. This isn’t an opinion, by the way. It is a fact. In particular, they look at most expensive care, which happens to be in hospitals, and persuade themselves that the local population can do without most or even all of it. But they can’t. To try to “re-engineer” aka cut beds without careful testing and sustained investment in evidence-based alternatives is irresponsible and dangerous. And yet this is exactly what has been done and continues to be done all over the country right now. Lord Crisp’s report into the availability of acute mental hospital beds published yesterday laid the facts bare. It was a good start. And the access targets it proposes will help. But we still have a long battle to rid ourselves of stigma towards mental health services not only from society but also from the rest of the NHS.
  3. Alcoholism and misuse of drugs are symptoms of mental distress and/or of underlying mental illness. To treat them simply as addictions is cruel and pointless. It may seem cheaper in the short term to separate such services from the NHS and employ unqualified staff to provide care. And it may be politically attractive to take a punitive, non-therapeutic approach to those who self medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs. But to do so condemns vulnerable people to a half life of pain and a premature, horrible death.
  4. There are millions of treatments available for physical illnesses. The same is so for mental illnesses. But why is it that people think they have a right to comment on the treatment of others who are mentally ill in a way they would be unlikely to do for, say, diabetes or heart disease? It’s true that psychiatry and psychology are inexact sciences. This is why they take more expertise, humanity and humility than the other disciplines of medicine. So if you feel tempted to comment on someone else’s treatment, unless you are their trusted clinician, please don’t.
  5. There is no hierarchy of mental illnesses, and no patients who are more “deserving” than others. People who experience psychosis don’t deserve more pity than those who have bipolar disorder, or vice versa. And a short bout of clinical depression can be just as fatal as anorexia nervosa. Please remember this and put away your judgements.
  6. You can’t see mental illness. And that’s part of the cruelty. Getting up and going to a cheap cafe to spend the day with others who understand the challenges of mental illness might sound easy to you. If you feel inclined to bang on about the value of work to those for whom the thought of being compelled to attend a job interview causes them to seriously consider jumping under a train, please shut up. Just because some people don’t get sympathy from tabloid newspapers doesn’t make them any less of a human being than you.
  7. I’ve no problem with the use of words like bravery to refer to those experiencing cancer. And I know from friends with cancer that they have no choice but to be brave. But can we please recognise the courage, guts and determination of those who experience life with mental illness? And can we stop talking about suffering, because it implies passivity and weakness. The one thing I know about every person I have ever met who lives with a mental illness is that they are anything but weak. They are creative and heroic, in ways those who’ve never faced a life such as theirs can only imagine.

People who live with mental illness should be applauded and lionized. Not criticised, preached at, commented on, misunderstood and shunned. I hope next week’s taskforce report will recognise this.

Go us. Thank you.

How do you feel today?

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They say you should do something scary every day. I’m not sure. Although I do know that I need the occasional exhilaration of putting myself in an uncomfortable position and overcoming my nerves to make me feel fully alive. Such opportunities came along a bit too frequently when I was a chief executive. But these days I probably don’t scare myself often enough.

Today is the annual Time To Change #TimeToTalk day. Last night, the choir I recently joined held an open mike session. And I decided to terrify myself at the last minute by offering to do a turn.

Although I can follow a tune and love to sing, I am not like the other wonderful acts that got up and entertained us. I have no special musical talent. But I can talk about stuff.

So I found myself standing there and explaining to a packed pub why I had decided to join the choir. Which is that singing with other people is really good for me. Since school choir days, I have yearned to sing again in a choir. I am full of wonder at being part of something greater than myself. I love having to concentrate really hard in order to follow the music. It moves me when a piece we have faltered over suddenly comes together in glorious harmony. Singing with others of a much higher standard helps me to raise my own game. It feels visceral yet sublime.

And I told them about my history of anxiety and depression, and the impact it has had on me, off and on, over 45 years since I was 15. I talked about stigma, including self stigma. And I told them them that I knew I wasn’t alone, because at least 1:4 people in that pub were like me, possibly more. I told about the research of the positive impact of singing on mental well-being.

And then I asked them to join me and celebrate Time to Talk Day by talking to someone else about mental health.

How did it go? Well, I was nervous of course. But they were lovely. I got clapped and cheered. There were a few tears. And some lovely conversations later. I shouldn’t really have expected anything else. The choir is amazing and our conductor MJ is not only a multi-talented musician. She is also an inspiring, compassionate leader. She gets the best from all of us, as singers but also humans.

If you have experienced mental illness but feel shy about telling people in case they judge you, maybe you could do something scary today? Please think about taking the plunge and talking to someone about it, what you do to cope but also how it is only one thing about you. Talk to a colleague, a friend or just someone you happen to bump into. Use Time to Talk Day as your excuse. And ask them about their own mental health. Listen really carefully to what they say. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by your conversation.

And how do I feel today? I think you can probably guess :):):)

Hello, my name is Lisa

We all have days that are hard. When what we need to do seems insurmountable, when we wonder whether anyone knows or cares about our efforts, and when we question our own plans, motivations and abilities.

As a writer and mental health campaigner who experiences depression from time to time, such days come along not infrequently. They also go away again, but only if I find ways to work through the negative feelings that beset me. To keep on keeping on, as Bob Dylan called it.

To do this, I deploy various methods. One of my favourites is to summon someone I admire, and imagine them watching me. Or I ask myself what they might do if they were in my position. It doesn’t make depression go away, of course, but it helps me face up to the difficult stuff.

It is a great honour to have met one of the people who, without knowing it, helps me on occasions to get over myself. And to have done so back in June 2014 when she spoke at the NHS Confederation Conference about the campaign she started which snowballed into the social movement Hello My Name Is.

I am of course talking about the indomitable, courageous and wise Dr Kate Granger, who has terminal cancer and yet as well as Hello My Name Is has managed to complete her medical training to become a consultant physician, get an MBE, bake amazing cakes, play the flute and tick off more things from her bucket list than most of us manage in many years longer than she knows she probably has.

In a tweet earlier this week to Kate’s husband Chris Pointon, who I haven’t met but I know must be a wonderful man because Kate wouldn’t have married anyone who wasn’t, I said I would write about why Hello My Name Is immediately struck a chord with me. This is it.

In my old life as an NHS mental health trust chief executive, I grew to learn that values mattered many times more than strategy. And that these needed to be simply stated, oft repeated and regularly practised by me and all our staff. We had five.

  • We welcome you – because first impressions really matter
  • We hear you – listening really carefully
  • We are helpful – being pro-active, flexible, creative
  • We work with you – sticking with people through the difficult times
  • We are hopeful – being optimistic for people – staff and patients – and our services

I love these values. You can find out how we developed them when eventually you read the book I have almost finished (hint). For now, I’d just ask that you notice the first one, We welcome you. It links closely with Hello My Name Is. And with name badges.

Name badges really matter in mental health and related services. Because patients can be confused or experience hallucinations. Because services can be scary, for real or imagined reasons. And because no-one wears a uniform so you really can’t tell who is who. And you need to know.

So when I first became CE, the executive team agreed that we would always wear badges and that all our staff would always wear badges, as these would help us to introduce ourselves to each other and to patients. And then however stressed or forgetful someone was and however many people they met, they would always know who the other person was.

During my time as a CE, for the most part, people wore their badges with pride. But not always. You’ll have to wait for my book to hear some of the excuses I came across during 13 years on why staff, including extremely senior ones, were not wearing a name badge. And why I take ultimate responsibility for this.

But what I will tell you is how, back in early 2014 when Hello My Name Is was beginning to gain traction,  I wrote about it in my weekly blog, and asked our people to think about incorporating it as part of We Welcome You. And I got some really nice responses. But also one or two dusty ones. Including from one senior person who said that they were deeply insulted that I was suggesting such a thing, because of course they always introduced themselves to their patients and didn’t I have something more important to write about. This wasn’t the same person who had previously told me that they didn’t need a name badge because everyone knew who they were and anyway they didn’t work in Tesco. But it could have been.

I believe that people like this are, at heart, good and caring and that they are not untypical in any part of the NHS. But they have some way to go to understand that the Hello My Name Is campaign is about seeing the patient and not just their disease, and about bringing your whole compassionate self to work, rather than just your intellectual self.

Kate, your inspirational campaign is still very much needed. It will remain topical and relevant for many years to come. You have set a standard for how we work together to which we can all aspire. You are a shining beacon whose work will live on long after we are all gone.

Hullo, my name is Lisa. Thank you for inspiring me on my difficult days to keep on keeping on.