listening

January can be a wicked month

Whether you call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter blues, even depression, January can be a wicked month for those of us who have problems maintaining our mood. The combination of miserable weather, not enough light, post-holiday flatness and getting back on the treadmill can feel pretty grim.

So what to do? Reading breezy articles in lifestyle magazines might lead you to believe that the answers to your woes lie in spending money you almost certainly don’t have on new clothes, visits to spas, holidays or even a home makeover.

Such advice can make people like us feel even worse. As can admonishments to start a new you via a radical change to your diet, new hobbies or an unrealistic exercise regime. When we are feeling low, stuff like this plays into the isolation and hopelessness that already beset us. We know we probably should do these things, but we can’t because we believe we are hateful and lazy and useless and undeserving and anyway, there isn’t any point because nothing will ever get any better.

From my somewhat extensive experience of Januaries past, I offer an alternative list, proven, on the occasions when I have actually taken my own advice, to work.

  1. Stop being mean to and about yourself. You deserve kindness. Start thinking of yourself in a kinder way. When you find yourself putting yourself down and focusing on your deficits, turn this on its head and make a list of your assets instead. Practice being proud of who you are.
  2. Walk places, if possible every day. Walking is proven to lift our mood. It releases endorphins. And it’s free. The first ten minutes may be hard going but after that it will feel a bit easier. The rhythm of walking is soothing. It strengthens the heartbeat. And even if you find meditation impossible in the more usual way, walking will help calm any troubling thoughts.
  3. Tidy something small. Start by making your bed. Do the washing up. Put out some rubbish. Creating order in our surroundings helps to us to create order in our minds.
  4. Whatever you are doing today, do it to the best of your ability. Even if it something you hate, like cleaning or filling in forms. And at the end of the task, take pride in what you have achieved. Tell yourself you did well. And remember to praise yourself not for the outcome, but for the effort you put in to achieving it.
  5. Force yourself to talk to someone else. It may feel easier to hide away, but this is statistically proven to make things worse. Humans need contact with other humans. Parties and large groups can feel overwhelming unless you are at your best. Instead, arrange to have a cup of tea with a friend. Or pop round to see a neighbour. Ask how they are. And when they ask you, answer them honestly. If you are really isolated, think seriously about calling a helpline.

If you are feeling desperate, please, please seek help. Try this wonderful app created by Grassroots, a charity I am deeply grateful to be associated with as a trustee. Or call Samaritans,  who are there 24/7 to listen, without judging. They really can help. I know, as I’ve tried them myself in the past.

January can be a horrid month for many of us. But we can get through, if we are kind to ourselves and reach out.

Because, as the advert says, we’re worth it.

 

The hardest thing of all

I’ve been watching the desperately sad story unfold of the awful, untimely, preventable death of a young man with learning disabilities. Only those most closely involved can comment on what led to his death. But what happened afterwards has become extremely public.

Having done the job I once did, I feel the need to share some thoughts.  I know this may provoke strong reactions. But to be silent suggests complicity about unfair discrimination of vulnerable people, lack of compassion and the opposite of openness in how the NHS too often deals with mistakes. And I am not complicit.

The media, including social media, can be a massive force for good. The media can shed light on things that need to be uncovered, especially where the interested parties are far apart. And in the case of campaigning journalists like Shaun Lintern, they can help families eventually get to the truth. Although they really shouldn’t have to.

The NHS is at long last waking up to the fact that the public understand bad things can happen. The public know that the NHS is staffed by humans who, by dint of being human, make mistakes. And that there are risks inherent in almost everything that the NHS does or doesn’t do. They know some mistakes occur because staff are careless or stressed or tired or overstretched or poorly trained or badly led. And they are realistic; they also know that a small number of staff do terrible things deliberately. But the NHS still needs to appreciate that the public will not accept cover ups.

Below are some of my lessons on running services for vulnerable people, learned the hard way, by experience. And by not getting things right myself all of the time.

  1. Running NHS services is very, very hard. The hardest part is when things go wrong and patients are harmed or die in circumstances where this could have been prevented. It is what causes those in senior positions, like the one I once held, sleepless nights and to question our own fitness to lead. If leaders don’t have sleepless nights like this, they are almost certainly in the wrong job. Being a decent leader in one of these very hard jobs starts with having respect and compassion for those we serve. And the humility to admit mistakes.
  2. Leaders in the NHS need to be curious and ask questions. They need to seek the truth, however hard this may be. They should surround themselves with others who are curious too and not afraid to challenge their leader. They need clinicians of the highest integrity with deep knowledge of the care they are responsible for to advise them. And although NEDs and governors who pose difficult questions may occasionally be wearisome, good leaders know that such people are invaluable at questioning what might seem obvious and to upholding core values. I may not always have shown this, but it is what I truly believe.
  3. Some time after I left, I noticed that my old trust had been criticised for apparently taking too long to complete serious incident reviews. And I recalled my own occasional frustration at the length of time it took to receive outcomes from a review when I was desperate for answers. But now I’m thinking again. Investigating something properly takes time, especially when extremely distressed people are involved. Those investigating must be open minded and objective. They need to be released from other duties. They must not take everything they are told at face value. And they need the remit and backing to do whatever is needed to get to the facts. Timeliness is important, but not at the expense of uncovering the truth.
  4. I recall an attempted homicide by a patient. We were so concerned to find out whether we risked a recurrence that, rather than an internal investigation, we immediately commissioned a specialist independent organisation to investigate and report to us, with no holds barred, on the care and treatment of this patient. This informed us about some changes we needed to make. This approach was later commended by the coroner. But when a statutory independent review was eventually carried out more than three years after the incident, the reviewers devoted space in their report to criticising us for having commissioned that first report, even though they broadly concurred with the findings. There is no rule book for NHS leaders. You must work out what to do yourself. And often only learn with hindsight whether you got a decision right or wrong.
  5. The media onslaught that can occur after a serious incident can be all consuming and deeply distracting. The worst thing that can happen is that you are diverted from the real job, of providing good care and rooting out any that is less than good, into so-called “media handling”. I have been very close to getting badly distracted myself on occasions. My saving grace was probably having been a nurse first. But I don’t think that being a clinician is by any means essential to being a good NHS leader. Caring about what happens to patients is the only essential qualification.
  6. Apologising is never easy. But it can mean so much. Apologies should be sincere, whole-hearted, unqualified and platitude-free. They may not be accepted initially. They may have to be repeated, sometimes many times. The hardest meetings for me and those I worked with during my 13 years as an NHS CEO were with families whose loved ones had come to harm in our care. But I am so grateful to those people for giving me the opportunity to listen really carefully to them and to apologise to them in person. It may take a long time to achieve such a meeting, and sometimes several are needed. The effort is really worth it.
  7. The NHS is a microcosm of society and is institutionally discriminatory towards those who experience mental illness or have a learning disability. This is manifest in poor staff attitudes, low expectations, inadequate investment, silo thinking, paucity of data including comparative benchmark information on incidents, and the negative way the rest of the NHS treats those who raise concerns about such things. I’m doing my tiny bit as a volunteer to improve matters but there is so much more for all of us to do.
  8. Talk of “numbers” without benchmarks and other good quality comparators can also be a distraction. Every unexpected death of a vulnerable person needs to be investigated to see if it could have been prevented. And that takes resources, which are in short supply in mental health services these days where the brunt of cuts have been made despite all the rhetoric about “parity of esteem”. Coroners are also overwhelmed; it often takes years before inquests into such deaths are completed, which is agony for the families.

It really shouldn’t matter whether the person who died was young, talented, beautiful, courageous, funny or anything else. They were a person who mattered. My heart goes put to anyone who has lost a loved one, and especially to those whose deaths were in some way preventable. You have to live with “if only” for the rest of your lives.

And that is the hardest thing of all.

 

Welcome back

Hullo you.

So you’re back, are you? Please forgive me if I haven’t exactly laid out the red carpet. It’s just that the last time you were here, you caused havoc. It took me a year to deal with the consequences. You wore me out. My family and friends were extremely glad to see the back of you. My own feelings, as you well know, were more mixed. Because I recognised that you had, quite literally, become part of me.

What I can tell you, as you so cleverly insinuate yourself back into my life, is that I’m better prepared for you this time. I’ve done a lot of soul – searching. And I’ve had professional help. I have slowed down my thinking, and learned the painful lesson of sharing, with a few trusted people, that I’m not always OK, and in particular the devastating effect you can have on me if I don’t take care.

I’ve also made some new friends, who know you too, or someone like you. At great personal cost, they have developed ways of living in harmony with their cruel demon. I am indebted to the generosity of these new friends. I am even grateful to you, because, were it not for your last, most shocking visit, I would never have met these extraordinary people.

I have again only recognised your arrival with hindsight. A disapproving little voice whispering in my ear at my 60th birthday party, at the very moment I told those closest to me that I had finally got my mojo back, saying: have you? Have you really??

This makes me question myself. Was I pretending, all those months after I thought you’d left? Faking it till I baked it, as the saying goes? I don’t think so. Because faking is almost impossible with you around. My razzle-dazzle, such that it is, fades in your presence. My smile becomes less convincing when it is painted on. Plus, and this has been a very important lesson, pretending not only hurts me. It does damage to others.

This month, you appear a few times, in the small hours, when I should be turning over from the first refreshing sleep of the night and falling quickly back into the next slumber. Instead I become alert and watchful. At these times, you make me go over past failings, magnifying them out of all proportion. In the mornings, there you are again, a dank blanket, ready to spoil the day. Not every day, but enough of them to make me worried that soon, you might not be leaving.

Most wicked one, you mess with my head. You have ways of making me feel responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong that I have had remotely anything to do with, and for not doing enough to solve the ills of the world. You force to me go over and over stuff that makes me feel bad or sad, and guilty for my luck at any of the good things that have come my way. You tell me I am undeserving, selfish, lazy, intellectually weak, self-indulgent, tedious and evil.

And I believe you, to some extent, but not quite so much as before. Because I have learned about your psychological tricks. In a straight fight, I know you will always win. I need to listen to you, because occasionally you are right. After all, you are merely an extension of my conscience, aren’t you? I just mustn’t try too hard to placate you, or listen so much that I stop hearing others who speak more kindly to me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve tried to take myself less seriously. To be less certain and to listen with greater care. And I’ve learned that to be kind to others, which after all is the whole point of having been put on this earth and being human, I must first be kind to myself. So I’m trying more of that now, mainly in my internal world, but also by sharing how I am feeling with those close to me and some of my newfound friends.

I’m not going to try to banish you from my life. I can’t; you are a part of me. But please don’t get big ideas. You are only a part. Despite your mean little voice telling me I don’t deserve professional care, I have again sought it. It is already helping. But in the end it’s up to me, and only me, whether I allow you to become my defining feature. I am determined that you won’t be. To achieve that, I must also never again pretend that you don’t exist at all. That is why I am writing this blog, for all to see. I will face you, and not allow you to win by making me feel ashamed of your occasional visitations. There should be no shame.

Welcome back, my friend. Today the sun is shining, and you are quiet. But I know you are still there, waiting for me in my weaker moments. And I’m ready for you.

I hope.

 

 

Sussex will never be the same. But we stand together

Saturday 22 August 2015, lunchtime. I’m looking forward to football – Brighton and Hove Albion v Blackburn Rovers. We got back from holiday last night. Steve has gone to Storrington via the A27 near Shoreham Airport to collect William from his cattery. They should have been home an hour ago. I notice via Twitter that there has been an incident at the air show affecting the A27. Slight anxiety till husband and cat return.

At 2.15 I set off on my bike to the Amex. The air is warm and still, the roads empty. At the stadium, we learn that kick – off will be delayed as the A27 at Lancing is shut both ways. Several thousand spectators fail to arrive. We win, not especially well. People keep checking their phones for news.The atmosphere is muted. Son, 28, hugs me spontaneously.

It is only the next day, as estimates of the number who may have been killed keep rising that the enormity of that Saturday moment really begins to sink in.

As I go about my Sunday, I think of those anxiously awaiting news. The names of two 23 year olds are released as the first to have lost their lives.They were semi-pro footballers at Worthing United, en route to a match in Loxwood. One was an Albion employee, both were Albion fans. Tony Bloom, our chairman, loses his composure as he pays tribute to two lovely boys. There will be many mothers like me feeling guilty for being thankful we have no-one missing.

Monday 24 August. On the Today programme, John Humphrys allows his exasperation at the dissembling of an aviation authority representative to get the better of him. He refers to the German Wings incident and talks of “Mad people getting into the cockpit”. A gratuitous, stigmatising link. I recall an appearance myself on Today earlier this year to challenge the German Wings coverage.

A planned day out with a friend to celebrate our 60th birthdays starts with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The poignancy of the loss of young lives catches me unawares.

Much later on my way home, I check the BBC website. There are now six named dead or missing, at least five more to come. The A27 will remain closed all week. The West Sussex Coroner calls for patience; the scene of devastation is beyond comprehension, and identifying the bodies is painstaking work.

Tuesday 25 August. The national media has moved on. But Radio Sussex and our local paper The Argus continue to dedicate much space to the incident. The reporting is beautiful in its sensitivity and as far from sensationalist as you could hope. Careful attention is paid to those already known to be lost, those waiting for news, the ones involved in the clear up and local people who are just shocked and stunned. MP Tim Loughton does what leaders should in times of crisis and is present, calm and thoughtful in his comments. The police, ambulance, fire and rescue teams and volunteer helpers are heroic. The NHS is doing what it does best, saving lives, or trying to. News of the pilot isn’t good but people pray for him. There is no finger pointing. But there are understandable queries about whether vintage planes should be used in air displays over built up areas. The Shoreham Airshow as we know it may be no more.

We all have mental health. Events such as these don’t cause mental illness. But they affect our wellbeing in many ways. It’s wonderful to see Sussex Partnership and the rest of the NHS offering advice and help to those who need it.

And I’m pleased to see my friend Daniel from Brighton, Hove and District Samaritans speaking about voluntary support, including Samaritan volunteers who have been making themselves available to talk to distressed folk paying tribute to the dead. I can think of no-one better placed in such circumstances.

Thursday 29 August. This morning, two days after posting the original version of this blog, I get a call from Radio Sussex. They are doing a programme on Saturday lunchtime live from Shoreham Footbridge to pay tribute to all those who have died, been hurt, have helped in the clear-up or been otherwise affected in any way. Presenter Neil Pringle has suggested they ask me to appear in the programme. I couldn’t be more honoured. I will do my best to say things that will help people.

These are troubling times. Sussex has been dealt a body blow. How can we all help one another? By standing together, being patient, thankful, hopeful, and relentlessly kind.

 

Nobody said it was easy…

My last blog was about the launch of the Time to Change project, working alongside two volunteer mental health trusts to tackle the stigma within mental health services. It got lots of positive comments. And a few negative ones.

In the interests of improvement, I thought I’d share the latter, see what I can learn from them and also offer my response.

The comments fall into three broad categories.

1.People who do bad things need calling out. That is the essence of accountability. This project ducks the issue.

I understand what you mean. And I agree. If someone has done something wrong, they should account for their actions. That is what any fair and just system is based on.

But…We are talking about attitudes. And it isn’t possible to change these by telling people they are wrong. And shaming or even punishing them. It doesn’t work. It can actually entrench those attitudes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa recognised this. It sought to use compassion and forgiveness to build bridges between groups who had done terrible things to each other. Archbishop Tutu used the learning from this work to build his worldwide Tutu Foundation, which teaches mediation to troubled nations and groups. Underpinning it all is his belief that people are made for goodness.

Time to Change has worked on this basis since 2007. They use facts and compassion to help change attitudes. They have had significant, measurable success. This project is no different. Facing up to what is wrong is not ducking the issue. It is honest and truthful and has taken huge courage. Changing things requires sensitivity and compassion. And that’s how we will be working.

2.Teaching staff about mindfulness and compassion is bollocks. It doesn’t work. There is a “happiness industry” out there ripping public services off and laughing all the way to the bank.

I use mindfulness myself, and am proud that my ex-colleagues at Sussex Partnership have been offering mindfulness-based CBT and mindfulness meditation to patients and staff on an increasing basis for the past 5 years. It does work. There is a large evidence base.

But I agree it is not a panacea. Nor does it work for everyone. Mindfulness doesn’t fix poverty, a housing problem or unkind treatment from someone else. What it does is enable you to control your emotional response to such challenges and not allow them to define you.

Our project will use a range of methods to help staff bring their whole, most compassionate selves to work. It won’t duck from identifying the cultural, organisational and external factors which affect the delivery of compassionate care. And this won’t be easy. But we are determined not to paper over problems.

3.Someone like you (me) who has had an occasional bout of depression has no idea about the stigma of serious mental illness. Thinking you are helping by disclosing your own experiences is self indulgent shit.

You have touched one of my rawest nerves. I shared your view for many years, which was why I kept my depression to myself. Added to that, I truly didn’t believe what I experienced from time to time was depression. I thought of it more as my own moral weakness and laziness. Words like self-indulgent were designed to perfectly describe me.

But now I’ve had some really effective therapy. I’ve learned that I’m not a bad person. And that my response to distress and dissonance is to turn in on myself with self-hatred that is greater than anyone else can ever feel towards me. I become my own worst enemy. This is a major aspect of my depression.

It is true that I don’t have the longterm effects of an illness such as schizophrenia to contend with. But just because I’ve managed to muddle through my life and have achieved a few things despite not infrequent bouts of depression doesn’t mean it has been easy. Judging me for not being more disabled is pretty sick, when you think about it.

So I’m going to continue being open about what I do to try and stay well, which I am at the moment, and about what it’s like when I’m not. And I’m going to listen to the thousands of people who have told me that coming out has helped them be more open. Rather than the handful who judge me as self-serving.

At least, that’s what I will try to do.

I’m looking forward to sharing these thoughts with members of the project working group and to hearing their own experiences and challenges. I’ll keep you posted on how we are doing.

And my final thoughts? Nobody said this project was going to be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.

No them and us. Only we

Some people call antidepressants “happy pills”. I’m not keen on this description. In my experience, they slice the top and bottom from my emotional range and I feel neither happy nor sad. Instead, they bring a calm which is welcome but can leave me feeling blunted, even flat. I know others describe similar effects.

Antidepressants helped me go back to work very quickly after my breakdown in November 2013. Skilled care from my psychiatrist and GP, timely psychological therapy, and the kindness of colleagues helped even more. Plus an over-developed work ethic. For those lucky enough to have decent jobs, going back to work and feeling useful can play a big part in our recovery.

I mention this because I want you to understand my state of mind on 24th February 2014, 6 weeks after I went back to my job at the time, running a mental health trust. Going back to work was probably the hardest thing I have ever done; one day, I hope to feel able to share why.

Anyway, on this particular day, I attended a round-table event arranged by Time To Change. Had I not been on my medication, I might have felt the need to challenge what we were being told. Or wept. Because I and the other NHS leaders present heard stuff at that meeting that we desperately wanted not to be true. And yet deep down we knew it to be so. It was like learning about institutional racism. Only this time, it was institutional stigma and discrimination from the services we were responsible for towards people who use our services.

We heard that, despite the measurable shifts in attitude of the general public (published in July by Time to Change for 2015 and again showing small but significant improvement), attitudes within the NHS haven’t shifted. In some cases, they have got worse. And the places where they appear most entrenched, as reported by those who know, ie patients, are within mental health services. And it rang horribly true.

From this meeting was born a desire amongst a number of us to do something to change this. Five months later, at my retirement party, I listed some of the things I planned to do with my new free time. One of them was to offer my services to Time to Change to help tackle this intrinsic issue within mental health services. And although I planned to earn a modest living writing, speaking and coaching others, I wanted to do this work as a volunteer. I felt I had something to pay back.

It has taken time to set up the project. But now it is underway. Time to Change are working with two mental health trusts, 2Gether and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear. Like me, they are volunteers. The trusts were selected because they could demonstrate their readiness at the most senior level to address stigma within their own services with integrity, hard work and, most importantly for me, compassion. On the working group, which I chair, we have reps from the two trusts, four experts by experience, our full time project manager, senior colleagues from Rethink and Mind who together are responsible for running Time to Change, and two people from a social research company who are doing the work on attitude measurement.

You can read more about the purpose  and details of the project here on the Time to Change website, including quotes from those taking part.  And Community Care have published a piece about the project today.

Stigma towards those who need mental health support is alive and kicking within the NHS. It manifests itself with lack of empathy towards those who self harm or are otherwise in crisis, as described in the recent CQC report; low expectations from clinicians about future prospects for people who experience serious mental illness; lack of investment in research into new treatments; marginalisation of mental health in the way the NHS is planned and organised; and unfair treatment of mental health services by local and national commissioners in their expectations and funding decisions.

But I have high hopes. There is an absolute acceptance amongst those involved in our project that things need to change. And that instead of simply asking people who work in mental health to be more compassionate, that the change needs to start at the most senior level. We have sign – up for this work from the very top of NHS England, Mind, Rethink, Time to Change and at the trusts. And we agree that for staff to work respectfully with patients and treat them with optimism, expertise and compassion, they need to experience the same from their colleagues, including their most senior leaders, their commissioners and their regulators.

It was a long time ago that I was told by a nurse that I was a waste of space and that looking after me after I had hurt myself took him away from patients who were truly deserving of his care. At the time, I absolutely believed him. It took me many years to unlearn what he said. And it nearly broke my heart to hear, at that meeting back in February 2014, that such attitudes are still relatively commonplace today. The difference now is that we are talking about them. And acknowledging a problem is the first and most important step towards solving it.

Please don’t just wish us luck. Please join in and help us tackle stigma towards people like me and millions of others who experience mental illness from time to time. I’ve been off my antidepressants for several months now. I feel like the whole me again, which has one or two negatives but is mostly pretty amazing. And whilst I am doing lots of things to look after my mental health in my new world, who knows if I will need treatment from mental health professionals again one day?

Because there is no them and us. Only we.

 

If I ruled the world…

In a previous life, I ran a mental health trust for 13 years. It was really hard, but it brought some influence to bear on something that matters very much, i.e. the experiences of 1:4 people, who, like me, are sometimes mentally ill.

In 2010, as Chair of the Mental Health Network, I shared a platform with Health Minister Paul Burstow, Paul Jenkins, then of Rethink, Sarah Brennan of Young Minds and others at the launch of the coalition government’s mental health strategy No Health Without Mental Health. In 2013, I met Norman Lamb (who took over the ministerial role in 2012) and a few other senior colleagues to discuss why it was that the strategy hadn’t completely worked, in our opinion. The shocking evidence of widespread disinvestment in mental health services was by then becoming clearer, rigorously uncovered by investigative journalists Shaun Lintern (HSJ), Andy McNicholl (Community Care) and Michael Buchanan (BBC). Who are heroes in my opinion.

In times of plenty, mental health services have received at least a small share of extra resources available. Professor Louis Appleby’s excellent National Service Framework was delivered from 1999 – 2009 through increased investment in crisis services, early intervention and assertive outreach teams. And it was strictly monitored. Commissioners and/or trusts who thought they knew better than the best evidence of what underpinned compassionate, effective care for people with serious mental illness were found out and given no option but to improve. The architecture that did this monitoring has since been dismantled. We are left with regulation, inspection, adverse incident reporting and stories in the media.

The pressure by local commissioners on providers to swallow the current disinvestment medicine is considerable. Mental health leaders who make a fuss are viewed as lacking loyalty to their local health system. Were the same cuts made to cancer or heart services,  there would be national uproar.

This tells us something, which is that stigma towards the mentally ill is alive and kicking within the NHS.

A true story: the other day, I mentioned the wonderful Alison Millar’s Kids in Crisis  programme to someone senior from NHS England. I could tell they were irritated to be reminded that very sick children are currently languishing in police cells or being shipped hundreds of miles around the country while desperate clinicians spend hours trying to find a bed. This person actually said that parents are prepared to travel all over the world looking for the best treatment for conditions such as cancer. So why should CAMHS be different? When I reminded them that this wasn’t about highly specialist care, just access to care anywhere, they blamed the failure on local services and moved on to share their insights with someone else.

So we have denial about the impact of disinvestment, as well stigma. And I realise that in my new freelance world, I have a different sort of influence.

Thanks to Paul Jenkins, now CE of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, for his blog this week on the paucity of investment in mental health research. Another example of how stigma is flourishing towards those least able to argue for resources. And to Andy McNicholl for his piece on the bed crisis in adult mental health services, mainly caused because people are being hospitalised when other services have closed, or there is nowhere safe for them to go when they are ready for discharge.

Regarding the NHS Five Year Forward View (5YFV) here’s my 6-point plan for making mental health more mainstream. With measurements. Because if you don’t measure, you can’t manage.

1. Suicide prevention

Make suicide prevention the business of every citizen of the UK. Stop blaming mental health trusts and their staff for failing to keep people alive. The responsibility is much broader than that. Locate suicide reduction planning with Health and Wellbeing Boards. Make it their number one priority, with proper support as well as sanctions for lack of progress.

2. Mental health within the NHS

Expect every provider and commissioner to make the care of people who happen to experience mental illness their explicit business. Start with primary care. Require every NHS employee, including reception staff and everyone who works in a commissioning organisation, to do a minimum 1/2 day training, with an annual update, delivered by experts by experience. Report on compliance via the annual NHS staff survey.

3. Integration

Require local systems to produce integrated commissioning plans for all primary and secondary services. Particularly crisis care; dementia; all major physical conditions such as heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes and cancer; neurological conditions such as MS and MND; and musculo-skeketal conditions including chronic pain. Draw on the RAID model for measurement. Allow organisational form to flower according to local need. But also require investment in integrated services through an annual reduction in organisational overheads, and increased investment in the third sector.

4. Public health

Reduce premature death rates in people with serious mental illnesses of up to 25 years by making mental health promotion core business for primary care and secondary health providers in the statutory and non-statutory sectors. Target supportive, evidence based obesity reduction, smoking cessation, substance misuse harm reduction and exercise programmes for people with diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD and personality disorder. Set ambitious targets over the next 25 years and monitor hard against them to help turn around the life chances of some of the most marginalised people in society.

5. Making the business case

It is up to the NHS to articulate and prove the business case for a change of approach in welfare for people with long term conditions such as serious mental illnesses. Commission the best brains eg Professor Martin Knapp at LSE to put the evidence together. Which is that it is considerably more costly as well as more cruel to condemn people who experience mental illness to poor, insecure housing and limited, insecure income, and for them to appear frequently and often pointlessly within criminal justice services.

But these costs do not occur in one place. Creating exciting opportunities for engagement and volunteering such as The Dragon Cafe can help people move from being recipients to full participants. Placing employment specialists within mental health teams and incentivising pathways into work are also proven to be highly successful. The alternative, i.e. penalising those in need of help, is counter-productive. It forces people to have to make themselves appear less able, makes them reticent about coming off benefits for fear of never getting them back should they need them in the future, as well as being extremely detrimental to their long-term well-being.

6. Research and improvement

Shine a light on why so little is spent on mental health research, given the financial and life chance costs of mental illness. Do something serious ang longlasting to reverse this. And then measure the impact longditudinally. No-one says we’re spending too much on cancer research, do they? Use that as our benchmark.

AND listen to the eminent and brilliant Professor Don Berwick, who makes the point that inspection never improved any health system. We need to invest in improvement science, architecture and skills for the whole NHS, of which mental health is an intrinsic, integrated part. Calling something NHS Improvement doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement body, by the way. But it is a good start.

 

I’ve shared these thoughts with the fabulous Paul Farmer, CE of Mind, who is leading one of three national task forces set up to help deliver the NHS England 5YFV. The other two are on cancer and maternity care. I know he wants to do the best he can. But he needs your help.

If you are part of the mental health family, and I would argue that every human being should be, please join in. Let’s seriously increase our ambition for those of us who experience mental illness, and focus hard on a small number of really important things that will really change lives. And then let’s concentrate and not squabble amongst ourselves as we set about achieving them.

That’s how winning teams win, against all the odds.

Don’t be mean*

In my blog last week, I mentioned that my next one might be contentious. This is it.

Tonight, Health Service Journal (HSJ) have announced their inaugural list of Patient Leaders.

I am stunned to be on it. Plus a little bit anxious and also prouder than I have felt for a long time. Here’s why.

I’ve been on a few lists in my time. I remember the first one of influential women in the NHS. Some of us got a bit of stick for that, as did HSJ – “What about the influential men?” came the cry. Take a look at the top of the NHS, and you will see why there is a need for a list with just women on it. Even more so for Black and Minority Ethnic NHS leaders. Hats off to @NHS_Dean who has been open about changing his mind recently regarding quotas on Boards. It’s not too late to join him.

There are many other reasons why such lists can cause controversy. One is that they seem to include all the obvious people, who have reached positions of influence “just” by the nature of their jobs. Who have apparently been in the right place at the right time. Whose mistakes haven’t yet caught up with them. Or who are lucky enough to have a face that “fits”.

I’ve been there and even made such remarks. And I know that, although doing so might have made me feel better about not being on some list or another myself, it also introduced a tiny chip of meanness into my heart which I then had to work very hard to eradicate. Or it risked undermining me and any future good I might bring to bear.

To the people who are feeling mean about this latest list, I say this. Yes, some of the names on it may seem obvious to you. But only they know the personal cost of being there. And yes, there may be some, me included, who are relatively late entrants to the patient leadership world. But that doesn’t make them, even me, unworthy, nor does it in any way diminish the extraordinary contribution of those who have been doing this labour of love for much longer than the rest of us.

Being a member of an exclusive, perhaps even excluded club may feel good, especially one whose purpose has been to act as a ginger group. But patient leaders are doing work that is too important to remain on the outside looking in. One day, and I don’t think it will be all that long, we will see experts by experience appointed into paid leadership roles right across the NHS and care system, as a matter of course. We must of course protect their independence. But we must also stop seeing them as an optional, expensive, fortunate and patronised extra.

There is nothing I did throughout my 41 year NHS career that was harder than sharing my own experiences of mental illness, facing up to going back to work after my last episode of depression, and then retiring, I hope with dignity, to forge a new career as a writer and mental health campaigner. I know it will have been equally hard for others to have followed their personal, not always chosen, path.

So let us warmly thank EVERY patient and carer leader for the courage, wisdom, creativity and generosity they bring to improve our less than perfect, still beautiful, deeply precious NHS. And to all those on tonight’s list, here’s to you. I feel humbled to have joined your extraordinary ranks.

*With thanks to the extraordinary Kate Bornstein, whose philosophy on life is “Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Just don’t be mean.”

 

Please don’t walk by on the other side

Suicide is one of the last taboos. So much so, that some internet service providers (ISPs) block websites that name it, for fear they are pro-suicide or that just mentioning the word may somehow encourage it. Even my little blogsite has been affected. Thanks to those who told me about two ISPs who were blocking me, and to BT who fixed it fast. And thumbs up to Virgin Media whose initial excuses were unimpressive, but who sorted it out eventually.

I was thinking of the taboo of suicide when I met some wonderful people in Devon recently. Some had been directly affected by suicide, such as the couple who lost their 18 year old son in 2011 and now campaign to raise awareness, and promote a young people’s helpline and two excellent training courses, Safe Talk and ASIST via suicide prevention charity Papyrus. Some were like me and experience suicidal thoughts from time to time. And some were just good, kind people who help others in their chosen careers or as volunteers. They are all part of the South West Suicide Prevention Collaborative.

I shared some of my personal story with them and why I believe now more than ever that preventing suicide is everyone’s business. It is definitely not just the responsibility of staff who work in mental services, who can get blamed for not keeping someone alive, rather than praised for all the times that they have. Staff need support at such times because they feel devastated at the loss of a patient who they care about deeply. How can we expect them to be compassionate to others if we treat them with so little compassion?

Actually, this applies to all of us. Telling people who work in public services to be more compassionate while treating them without dignity, respect or kindness is the ultimate irony. And yet it is played out in many places every day. Including much of the media.

I said something at the event that isn’t currently fashionable. I don’t think it is is possible to prevent every death by suicide. But I do think that we can do very much more IF we make suicide prevention the business of families, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, all public services rather than just the obvious ones, the media, shops, cafes, bars, the voluntary sector, faith groups, social groups, sports clubs…everyone. And if we talk about it with more understanding and less rush to judgement, I believe we will gradually lose the taboo. But we still have far to go.

It isn’t just those of us who experience mental illness who think about killing ourselves. Death of a loved one, job loss, other sorts of loss, crippling debt, loneliness, isolation or an overwhelming sense of hopelessness about the future can all be causes. One of the people at the Devon conference spoke bravely about the corrosive impact of the downturn and benefit changes on those who are least well-off.

Only those who have been directly touched by suicide can possibly know just how raw and awful it feels. It is a grief like no other, because of the guilt and the shame that is still associated with it. I don’t get cross about those who still describe the act as “committing” suicide. They usually mean no harm. Suicide hasn’t been a crime since 1961, but we have some way to go to incorporate that change into our values, attitudes, behaviours and language.

I have spent a lot of my life being ashamed of having occasional suicidal thoughts. I was lucky to learn about Samaritans via an article in Reader’s Digest when I was 15, the same year I saw my first psychiatrist. Their kind, wise volunteers have helped me several times in the past. I even became one myself for a while in my early 20s. But I was going through a rough patch and left without explaining why.

Now it’s payback time. I’m doing a big bike ride to raise money for Samaritans. Apart from a handful of staff at their HQ, all Samaritans are volunteers. Like the two lovely women who spoke at the Devon event about the work they are doing in local schools to raise awareness and offer support in the event of a death by suicide. I am donating my £500 fee from the event this week towards my fundraising target. Every penny I raise will go to keep local branches across the country running and to pay for the calls desperate people need to make. I have a big birthday in August. I’m asking my family and friends to make donations in lieu of presents. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate reaching 60.

We can all help one another. That man sitting on the station platform all alone? How long has he been there? Could you get over your reluctance to appear interfering and take a moment to ask him how he is? What about the elderly neighbour whose partner has recently died and who hasn’t been seen for a while? The young person at work who takes frequent days off? The friend who has been made redundant? Even the chief executive who has apparently made a mistake and is getting a mauling via social media. We can all do our bit to be kind, because that is all it might take to save a life.

And as we say at Grassroots, the wonderful suicide prevention charity in Sussex of which I am a trustee, here’s to life.