depression

All in the Mind?

I love BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind. It takes a compassionate, measured view of what’s new in psychiatry and neuroscience. Presenter Claudia Hammond considers research into the normal functioning of the mind and brain as well as mental disorders and brain diseases. Claudia has been quietly beavering away on All in the Mind since 2006, debunking myths about mental health and mental illnesses. She does other cool stuff on mental health too.

In 2015, I was interviewed for All in the Mind about The Recovery Letters, written by people like me who have experienced depression to help others facing something similar. This is my letter. James Withey, the inspiration behind the Recovery Letters, has been working on a book which will include the original letters plus some new ones. It comes out later this year.

Anyway, Claudia ran a positive piece about the letters. So when I was contacted a few weeks ago by All in the Mind producer Lorna Stewart about making another contribution to the programme, it was easy to say yes. This time, it was to ask for my thoughts on a series of questions from listeners about getting the best from mental health services.

I went to the studio and had what felt like a good conversation. My understanding is that there will be short inserts most weeks amongst the main items that make up the programme. It is called An Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Services. Here is a link to the first programme.

Are here are some things I thought about before I was interviewed.

  1. We are all as different on the inside as on the outside. Advice that works for one person will not work for another. To be honest, the concept of even giving advice on such a sensitive subject troubles me.
  2. On the other hand, there are things it can be useful to think about which people who are distressed or in crisis may either not know or they may forget. Plus, mental illness messes with your head. It can make you think bad things about yourself and consider doing bad things to yourself which you might later regret. It certainly did that to me when I had my last episode of depression. A kind word from someone who has been there might just be a lifesaver.
  3. Just as with physical illness, mental illness isn’t one thing. For example, a chest infection can be painful, even dangerous, but will almost certainly get better with treatment. Whereas lung cancer is likely to be more serious, and some types cannot be cured, just palliated. While no mental illness is nice, they can vary hugely in severity and impact. In our modern world we have become preoccupied with diagnoses, so I won’t start listing all the possibilities here. Suffice to say, some people will experience mental illnesses which cannot be cured. Therefore they have no choice but to find ways to live the best life possible with that particular condition and all it entails. Others may experience episodes of mental illness from which it is possible to make a full recovery. This is a great blog on the subject by Bipolar Blogger.
  4. Staying in bed all day and avoiding other people may be all you can face when you are experiencing an episode of mental illness. But in almost all cases, it is not a good idea. Humans are social and even the shyest and most traumatised among us need human contact. This is why we are encouraged to talk to someone – a GP, a trusted friend or family member, or to call a helpline. Here is a recent blog by me called What to do on a bad day.
  5. All sorts of things can go by the wayside when we are experiencing mental illness: getting enough sleep; drinking sufficient fluid; eating healthily or even at all; taking exercise; going out in the daylight; spending time in nature and/or with animals; being with those who love and care about us; personal hygiene; wearing comfortable, weather appropriate clothes; not self-medicating with alcohol, nicotine or other substances; and spending time doing meaningful things. It is important not to force yourself, but trying to reintroduce a few of these gradually will almost certainly help, even if you don’t feel like it. Just do it gently. Take baby steps. And be kind to yourself. Progress towards recovery is likely to be slow and not linear.
  6. I am sure there will be quite a lot in the programmes about medication. It is a hotly debated topic. I will just say this: the best clinicians will work with you to find the right treatment for you. It might or might not include medication. What is right for someone else may not be right for you. Also, most medications take time to start working. And sometimes the side-effects can be really tough.
  7. It is true that anyone can experience mental illness. But people who face other major challenges find it even harder to cope with and experience more lasting damage than those who do not. These include financial hardship, homelessness or insecure housing, loss of job or role, social isolation, bereavement, loneliness, abuse past or present, bullying and relationship problems can both cause and exacerbate a mental health problem. We are all born with a level of mental resilience which is then either added to or depleted depending on our childhood experiences. How we respond to later trauma is linked to these early experiences. Most therapy is about learning to understand ourselves better and to care for ourselves in a positive, kind way.
  8. Specialist mental health services are experiencing unprecedented demand. They are all making attempts to modernise and improve access to services and the appropriateness of treatment. But severe cuts have been made over the past 5 years which have reduced availability and in some cases removed very good services altogether. The government says they are reversing this. Some of us are keeping a very close eye to see whether they honour their word. But this doesn’t mean you will get poor care if you are referred to mental health services. You may have to wait a while. But you will find that most staff go out of their way to provide effective, compassionate, safe care.
  9. Your key mental health professional is your GP. Many GPs are really good at mental health. It is a significant part of their work. But they are also under huge work pressure. If yours seems to be one of the minority who are not so good, or you can’t get an appointment, you can arrange to see another doctor at the same practice or even change practices. It is a good idea to do this at a time that you are not in crisis.
  10. People who need help with mental health problems are not weak. In fact they have to be very brave to ask for help, and to do the things that are needed to recover. Doctors, nurses and therapists can help, but most of the recovery work is down to you. People who live with serious mental illnesses are heroes. They should be applauded every day for their tenacity, patience and courage.

The most important lesson I have learned, and it has taken me far too long to learn it, is that I need to listen to myself and be honest with myself about how I am feeling. At the time, it seemed that my last major episode of depression came out of the blue. With hindsight, it had been brewing for many months. How ironic that I, who was running mental health services, should have been so bad at spotting my own warning signs.

Intervening early and getting help when you need it should be standard across the UK. I make no apology for encouraging listeners to All in the Mind to ask for help if you need it, and not give up if it seems you aren’t getting it.

And if you are feeling desperate or suicidal, please talk to someone. There are various helplines listed here. The one I personally recommend is Samaritans on 116 123 or email Jo@samaritans.org. They will listen and help you make your own decisions. It may not sound like much, but it can be the greatest gift of all.

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What to do on a bad day

If, like me, you experience depression from time to time, you will know about bad days. They come and they go. Some are worse than others. On the very bad ones, it may be impossible to speak, even move.

It is not always the case that an accumulation of bad days will build up into a severe depression. But they might.

What is unfortunately true is that, on bad days, we may do things that we later regret. We may hurt ourselves, others or both.We may damage relationships and opportunities. And we may develop destructive habits that are hard to break, especially when the next bad day comes along.

If we are lucky, the good days outnumber the bad ones. On good days, it is easy to pretend that the bad days don’t happen. Or to forget what they are like. And the reverse is true also. On a bad day,  we can believe that we will never feel calm or happy again.

Today is a good day for me. And so I am making myself think about the things I would like to remind myself of when the next bad day comes along.

DO

  • Get up. Do it slowly. But do it
  • Make the bed. It gives a sense of control. And it is nicer if you need to go back
  • Make some, albeit minimal, attempt at personal hygiene. Maybe wash your face gently in warm water with a soft flannel
  • Get dressed in comfy clothes
  • Accept that this is a bad day. Embrace it. Only do what you must.
  • If you can, use mindfulness to notice the bad feelings as they come and then go by
  • If you can, use CBT so as not to engage in the negative thoughts
  • Make a plan to do very little. And then do what is on the plan. Drink tea. Eat toast. Watch comfort TV. If you can’t bear TV, listen to the radio
  • Spend time with the cat. He knows what to do
  • Cancel things that you can cancel for the next couple of days to give yourself some breathing space. This will probably include asking for help, which can be really hard.
  • Plan to go out for a little walk – if not today, then the next day. Or the one after. You will know when.
  • Tell someone you trust how you are feeling. I know this is the hardest part. But please, do not avoid this.
  • If you haven’t been recently, make an appointment to see the doctor
  • If you are desperate, call Samaritans

DON’T

  • Don’t tell yourself you are a useless lazy good-for-nothing selfish cow for not being able to do whatever you feel you ought to be doing today
  • Do not make any important decisions (like resigning from your job)
  • Do not stop your medication
  • Do not force yourself to exercise or berate yourself for being unable to exercise
  • Do not work, read anything other than the lightest of fiction or do anything else demanding
  • Do not watch the news
  • Do not read emails
  • Do not use social media
  • Do not write lists of how useless you are
  • Do not worry about the world
  • Do not go outside in your pyjamas. Or if you do, wear a coat

This is only my list. It might help you. But, even better, you might want to write your own.

If you do so, I would love to hear whether you found it useful.

Remember this; we are not alone.

 P.S. A few hours after posting, someone v wise pointed out to me that those with caring responsibilities don’t have the luxury of “duvet days” (they didn’t call them that but I know what they meant.) So I have amended the Do list slightly. 

It is still only my list. I don’t recommend any of it really. But I do recommend that you consider writing your own.

Take good care of yourself

Leaving flowers

Leaving flowers 2014

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Don’t pretend to be someone or something that you are not. It is exhausting.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Helen

20160918_103222Dear Helen

At last it’s over. You are free and safely home at Bridge Farm. The judge saw through Rob and gave you full custody of both boys. Your nasty husband won’t be allowed to see Henry at all and will only be able to spend limited time with Jack under Pat and Tony’s supervision.

The nation breathes a sigh of relief. We can return to wondering who will win the Flower and Produce Show.

But I’m still worried about you.

I’m worried because you can’t cut Rob out of your life completely. He’s Jack’s father, and he will no doubt be manipulative over access. And he’s still living in Ambridge. You have a divorce to face, with legal and financial settlements to get through. You have been very brave, but you are going to need to continue to be so for a long time. And that will be hard.

I’m worried that things may be rocky for a while with Henry. He’s only a little boy, and he is bound to have a reaction too. Despite ‘Daddy’ having been unduly strict and irascible, he was there when you were not able to be. Henry may resent you for disappearing while you were in prison: he won’t be able to understand why you couldn’t be at home with him. He may tell you he misses Rob, and you will have to work out what to say and do that will help him.

I’m also worried because you’ve experienced a series of terrible traumas – coercive control over two years, multiple rapes, the incident that led to the stabbing, imprisonment,  loneliness and separation from Henry. Plus the fear of being convicted, having Jack taken away and never seeing Henry again. You are a very private person; the trial must have been excruciating, with everyone knowing your business. These things will have had an impact. And there is bound to be a reaction. You may find yourself feeling flat and exhausted. Or even sinking into despair. Please don’t pretend to be OK if you are not. Please talk to someone, maybe your Mum or Kirsty, however hard it feels to do so.

And I’m worried that the reasons Rob was able to manipulate you haven’t changed. You are a thoughtful, caring person. But you are also vulnerable. You’ve lost a brother and a previous partner, and now all this. Even if you don’t feel the immediate need for professional help, when you are ready it might be good to explore the things that have happened to you, the impact they have had and how you want to live your life in the future. If you need professional help to do this, it is nothing to feel ashamed of. In fact it is a courageous and unselfish thing to do. Again it won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.

I’m not a complete idiot, Helen. I am well aware that you are a fictional character. But you represent something very real to listeners. You have touched a nerve in all of us about narcissistic charmers like Rob who in subtle and not-so-subtle ways undermine and manipulate their partners, leaving them confused, diminished, even broken.

We Archers fans love how this story has been given time to breathe. No other soap could have done this. As there is no other soap that could allow your character to face the aftermath of the abuse slowly and gently, in real time.

Some people think The Archers is all about smug middle class farmers to whom nothing ever happens, with a few working class folk thrown in for a bit of comic relief. How wrong they are.

Thank you Helen and The Archers for showing us what it’s like to meet Mr Wrong. It is a lesson that we all needed to learn.

Wishing you much love and luck for the future

Lisa

Improving the NHS: with added tribute to Dr Kate Granger

Lisa 3 (002)

Last week I was introduced by Dr Kathy McLean, Medical Director at NHS Improvement to 180 people comprising senior NHS clinicians, managers, directors, chief executives, patient representatives and members of staff at NHS Improvement, including most of their executive team. And I wondered how my homespun talk about improvement, leadership, the universe and everything would go down.

As it turned out, quite well.

The cartoon above was drawn by Inky Thinking. I don’t know how they do it, but they capture everything you say that you want people to remember.

Here is a word-based precis:

  1. If you forget that culture always trumps strategy, your efforts to improve services will be ineffective. I’ve been there and occasionally done it the right way. But more often the wrong way.
  2. You can’t help others to improve unless you are OK yourself. I have form on not remembering this.
  3. Leadership in public services has never been harder with our 24/7 media, including social media, and the anti-public sector rhetoric that appears in most newspapers.
  4. Plus we live in a post-fact world – see this article by Guardian Editor-In-Chief Katherine Viner. People believe things that are not true, and don’t believe things that are. I’ve had personal experience of this. And it is horrible.
  5. Being an NHS leader is very lonely. Never more so than when you are awake at 3am. People get in touch to congratulate you when something goes well. But when things go wrong, people you thought were friends seem to melt away.
  6. There is never enough time to think when you are running NHS services because of competing demands, often from those who are meant to be there to help you make improvements. But you must create time to think or you will make bad decisions.
  7. Filling senior vacancies in the NHS is getting harder. And we should worry about this. Because if we aren’t careful, the only ones who apply to be in the firing line will be those who don’t care what others think about them. And that would be very bad for all of us.
  8. We cannot separate leadership from mental health. In my opinion, people who experience mental illness from time to time can make exceptional leaders. It is only one thing about them. Plus, they develop skills through therapy that are invaluable – such as managing their own mood, listening really carefully, and not making assumptions about others.
  9. I have experienced depression off and on since the age of 15. A nurse said something damaging to me when I was 22 and vulnerable which I absorbed deep into my psyche. For the next 36 years I stigmatised myself, despite being an active campaigner against the stigma of mental illness. It was when I finally came out about my experiences that I was able to address my self-stigma. I have made many friends since then. But if only I had done it before, I could have been a better, more authentic leader.
  10. Mental illness messes with your head. It affects 1:4 of us. But 4:4 of us should care about it, not just on humanitarian and economic grounds, but because almost everyone can be affected. We are all on a spectrum of resilience, and if enough bad things happen to us, especially at a young age, most of us will experience post traumatic damage.
  11. When I appeared suddenly to get ill with an acute onset of depression in 2013, it was a culmination of things. My own susceptibility, but also workload, loneliness, weariness as I approached retirement, not taking care of myself, listening too hard to my own negative voices, and putting a lot of energy into maintaining a positive front. It wasn’t caused by internet trolls. But they didn’t help.
  12. So please don’t do what I did. Get to know yourself. Talk to yourself honestly about how you are. Talk to your loved ones. Take care. Be the best version of you, but make sure that it is you. And try always to see yourself as an improvement project – this makes it easier to accept criticism without it cutting you to your core. I’ve only learned this in the last few years, and it is a revelation!
  13. I am lucky. I have dear family and friends. And I got great care. I was able to go back to a job that I loved, which was a major part of my recovery. I know it isn’t the same for everyone.
  14. Since the summer of 2014 when I finally hung up my chief executive boots, I’ve been helping others in various ways to be the best version of themselves. And I’ve written a book which I hope you will read when it is published later this year.

As I finish this blog, I think of someone who embodies improvement in everything she does. The talented, compassionate and extremely resourceful Dr Kate Granger. Kate is currently in a hospice in what are probably the final stages of a rare and awful form of cancer. But as well as sharing the intimacies of her progress through terminal illness via her wonderful talks and social media, Kate has also revolutionised the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world with her #HelloMyNameIs campaign. She has written several books, and completed amazing things on her bucket list. And not content with that, Kate and her husband Chris Pointon are urging people to make donations to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre, a small charity that helps improve the quality of life of people living with cancer. You can donate here.

Kate and Chris demonstrate that being a leader isn’t a job, it is an attitude of mind. That anyone can make a difference if they focus on something that matters, turn a great idea into an innovation and build support for it through honest endeavour. We can all learn about improvement from them.

May you go well, both of you.

25 July 2016 postscript: 

Chris has just posted on Twitter that his wonderful wife died yesterday peacefully in the arms of her family. 

I only met Kate once. I will never forget her. She had an extraordinary stillness and presence. I hope the knowledge of the difference she has made and will continue to make for many years to come will sustain Chris and all who loved her in the difficult times ahead. 

My heart goes out to all of you. May her lovely soul rest in peace.
 

 

 

 

Three blogs and a bike ride

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week.  I’ve written three articles, visited a friend, given a talk, attended a party and been on a bike ride.

There’s been some other more difficult stuff which I don’t feel able to write about just now. More anon.

I wrote this piece about the loss of Sally Brampton through depression and what is assumed to have been suicide.

Suicide casts a long, cold shadow. My heart goes out to all who have lost someone that way. And to all who have tried to keep them safe. There is sometimes talk of failure in such circumstances. I fully understand why. But it can be cruel and destructive to those left behind. It can affect the grieving process and have terrible repercussions. I decided a while ago to devote some of my time to being a volunteer in suicide prevention. This work can of course be distressing. But is so worthwhile. If more people were involved in understanding about suicide, it would improve compassion and more lives might be saved. Blame doesn’t save anyone. If anything, it can have the opposite effect.

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On Monday I popped up to Rugby to see the lovely Gill Phillips and learn more about the groundbreaking work she does through her company @WhoseShoes. Gill had a special birthday this week – now she’s nearly as old as me! I love the way that this entrepreneurial woman has started a new adventure. I hope I can support Gill to bring Whose Shoes to the world of mental health. Go us!

Just Giving asked me to write this list of ideas to help people to manage their own mental health. It’s been fun watching the list grow throughout the week, and hearing comments from unlikely places about the tips. I just curated the list – none of them were invented by me. I try to follow them, not always successfully.

And I wrote this piece called Serendipity for NHS Employers. It was also Equality and Human Rights week. It was serendipitous to bring two things together that matter very much to me but which I hadn’t realised before had so much in common. I’ve had some useful feedback. It has sparked conversations about how we can use Mary Seacole’s legacy to inspire young people not just to dream, but to work hard and not be deterred by setbacks from achieving their ambitions.

One of my ambitions is to see the top of the NHS become less white and less male. Nothing against you guys, but as it says in my blog, the way things are now just isn’t representative. And having an unrepresentative leadership breeds alienation and resentment which has a negative impact on services.

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On Thursday afternoon I spoke at a Brighton Housing Trust Health and Wellbeing Service event (photo above). I was invited there to inspire the women with my experiences of being a high profile woman who is also open about my own mental illness. But to be honest, it was they who inspired me. I heard some stories I will never forget. I want everyone to know what we agreed, which is that people who live with mental illness have assets to share. Rather than deficits to avoid or accommodate. I’m going to be returning to this theme in the future.

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I was at the beautiful Black Cultural Archive in Brixton on Thursday evening at a comedy night with a purpose – to thank all the ambassadors and trustees who have spent 12 long years raising money for the Mary Seacole Statue.  That’s me with our brilliant and indefatigable Vice Chair Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE. Mary’s statue goes up in six weeks – much more about this soon.

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And on Friday I was out cycle training with my friend Sally who is joining me on Ride 100 on 31st July when we will be raising money for Samaritans. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that shortly. Suffice to say, after doing 20 miles of hills, including the notorious Box Hill (twice) we felt pretty smug 🙂

 

In memory of Sally Brampton. You are not alone

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I was saddened to hear of Sally Brampton’s untimely death after a long battle with depression. She was 60, the same age as me. From my own experiences of depression, I know a little of how things must have been for her. My heart goes out to all who loved her. May she rest in peace.

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week.

For those who are struggling, I say this. Mental illnesses mess with your head. They make you believe bad things about yourself. That there is nothing wrong with you other than laziness, moral cowardice, being hateful and lacking what it takes to lead a normal life. That you are not worthy of help. And that you must face this awful, isolating thing alone.

But struggling on alone is not a good idea. Nor is pretending to be OK when you are not. I know this from my own past, effective but wrong-headed attempts to keep how I was feeling to myself. In the end, keeping secrets just causes more damage. It can be really bad for you and those you care about.

If you are overwhelmed by negative or frightening thoughts, if life feels grim or even just pointless, please, please ask for help.

  • Talk to a friend or someone else that you trust.
  • Make an appointment to see your GP.
  • Check out the Grassroots Suicide Prevention StayAlive app – available free to download to iPhones and Androids.
  • Phone Samaritans on 116 123 or one of the other helplines.

If you don’t know what to say at first, or feel embarrassed or tongue-tied, it doesn’t matter. If you are afraid that the words won’t come, try writing it down.

Social media has been a massive help to me. I have made friends online who always seem to be there. They have been to those evil places. Not the same as mine, because we are all different, but their own terrifying versions. They know how lonely it feels.

Contrary to what you may hear, there are wonderful services available and treatments – medicines, many different sorts of therapy and other practical techniques – that work for most people. It can take time to find the right ones, of course. And it will take a lot of courage and effort on your part. There are no miracle cures. But I promise you, seeking help really is worth it.

Believe me, you are not alone.