Love

I’m sorry. No ifs and no buts.

Last night, I glanced through a well-written Guardian Healthcare piece about the distress experienced by a psychologist over the death by suicide of a patient. It touched a nerve deep in me, and I tweeted this:

Those who rush to judge mental health staff should read this honest piece. In my exp, every loss is as keenly felt
https://t.co/WGM0S2lALL

It got 15 retweets, 9 likes, some positive comments from people who work in mental health services but also a few more questioning ones from people who I would describe as experts by experience. And it was these, plus my initial reaction to the article, that have had me thinking rather hard over the past 24 hours.

I want to make some unequivocal apologies:

  1. I am sorry for my initial tweet. It is sadly not true that all such deaths are so keenly felt. Many are, but by no means all. I desperately wish they all were.

  2. I apologise to all those staff at the mental health trust I once ran who experienced the death by suicide of a patient and who didn’t get the support they needed to help them cope with such a loss or learn valuable lessons that would help them and other patients in the future. Despite my sincere wishes otherwise, I wasn’t always as consistently effective as I intended to be in this regard. I am so sorry for this.

  3. The people I was referring to who “rush to judgement” and look for people to blame after a death by suicide are NOT people who have experienced care, good or poor, or their families. In my not inconsiderable experience, such people are often the most moderate, thoughtful and compassionate towards the staff.  Those who DO rush to judgement are some, not all, of the media; some, not all, politicians; and a tiny but vociferous minority of the general public. It can nevertheless feel overwhelming to be under such an onslaught. I have experience of this. But I should have made what I tweeted clearer. I am really sorry that I didn’t,  because I upset and hurt people whose feelings matter very much to me. I may have done so inadvertently, but I was careless. And I am truly sorry.

  4. This stuff is particularly painful to me because of my own experiences many years ago when I made an attempt at suicide. What the nurse in A and E said to me, that I was selfish and a waste of space and keeping him away from patients who were really ill, had a deep and lasting impact. It took many years before I confronted my shameful secret and quite a few more before I came to accept that he had been wrong. So I am especially sorry that my tweet wasn’t well-constructed. Of all people, I should know better.

  5. It was after I returned to work in 2014 after my worst-ever depressive breakdown that I fully confronted the reality that staff who work in mental health are not all as compassionate as we might hope. There are many wonderful people, but there is still some downright cruelty, some poor attitudes and practices and some not inconsiderable compassion fatigue. I have written about this and my contribution to changing things here and about how challenging it is here. Today, we had a really good, honest project working group meeting, which I chair. This is extraordinarily difficult stuff. It cuts to the heart of things that matter deeply to me and to all the others around the table. So I am especially sorry about my tweet. As a writer, I should be more precise and thoughtful. As a chair, I have responsibilities. As a human, I should have taken more care.

I thought about just deleting the tweet. But that won’t make what happened go away. An unequivocal apology seems a better response. That, plus continuing the work with Time to Change to tackle what we know from countless surveys to be true, that stigma and discrimination are still alive and kicking within mental health services. And if we allow ourselves or anyone else to go la-la-la-la-We’re-not-listening, we, indeed I, are/am complicit in letting it continue.

You will be hearing more on this from me and others in due course. Our work will, I hope, feature in the upcoming Mental Health Taskforce report and in the future work plans for Time to Change.

The death of anyone by suicide casts a long and painful shadow. It is right and to be expected that staff should feel distressed. But they also need compassionate support so they are able, eventually, to carry on being compassionate themselves. And the ones who can’t be compassionate need to be helped to find something else to do.

One of my big lessons in life has been that I can’t be truly compassionate towards others if I am not compassionate towards myself. This means forgiving myself for making mistakes. I hope the people who I carelessly hurt by my tweet will forgive me too. Eventually.

PS In fact, within a couple of hours of posting this I had heard from all those mentioned. I feel deeply blessed to know such kind and forgiving people :):):)

Let’s keep on keeping on

We’ve had a mini mega-burst of mental health media already this week.

Surely a self-confessed mental health campaigner like me ought to be pleased about all this increased profile? Actually I feel three things:

Frustration

I feel frustrated and very angry for my fellow patients and erstwhile colleagues because of the cuts in care, both statutory and voluntary, that have led to the only “safe” place for people who are very unwell being in hospital, and to every acute mental hospital bed being full. It is not only cruel for the patients, it is deeply counter-productive. The young woman with a personality disorder languishing in an acute ward in North London (whilst funders slowly cogitate whether she should get a more appropriate service) is deteriorating daily and her problems are becoming ever more intractable and corrosive. If she had cancer, people would be doing marathons and having cake sales to support her. As it is, millions of people like her are seen by society only for their deficits rather than the assets that may lie buried deeply but are undoubtedly there. Parity of esteem? We’re having a laugh.

Love and gratitude

I feel huge love and gratitude to brave people like Professor Green for dragging mental illness and the stigma of suicide kicking and screaming out of the shadows and into the sunshine. I was moved by so much in Suicide and Me , including the rawness and vulnerability of the rugby coach as he bared his psychological all about feelings of worthlessness and what he is learning to do to protect himself from suicidal thoughts.

Today, the day after the programme was shown, I have a regular Board meeting with Grassroots, the small but highly effective suicide prevention charity of which I am a trustee. I love my fellow trustees and the amazing people who work and volunteer for Grassroots. We know what Professor Green has discovered for himself: suicide thrives where there is secrecy and shame. One of my shameful secrets used to be all those times in my life when I faked physical illness because I couldn’t get out of bed for feeling so hopeless, helpless and full of self-hatred that I wanted to stop living. It’s still very hard to ask for help, but many times easier now that I’ve outed myself. Bringing these shameful secrets into the sunlight and talking about them is our greatest tool to keep ourselves safe and to live a full and beautiful life in recovery.

Responsibility

I listened to All in the Mind this morning on iPlayer as it clashed with Suicide and Me. I salute the wonderful Claudia Hammond for dedicating her first programme of this series to young people’s mental health. I’ve written before about my concern that there is a lalala-I’m-not-listening response to the considerable increase in demand for children and young people’s mental health services. The programme takes a forensic interest in trying to find the reasons for this rise. There are various theories, mainly societal and social, but no conclusive explanation that could be used to stem the demand.

For staff working in these services, there is great anxiety – that they will miss someone extremely vulnerable, that the treatment they are giving is not sufficient, that they are spreading care and themselves too thinly. The pressure can feel close to unbearable.

We should be indebted to those who speak up about the challenge of working in mental health these days, like those on All in the Mind and the staff and leaders at Barnet Enfield and Haringey Trust on Panorama. Their courage and compassion shine.

These programmes stir up triggering thoughts and feelings in those who are susceptible. Social media can be a great source of support,  but only if you are open, which also increases vulnerability. Twitter and Facebook have been very active this week.

I’ve had many thoughts myself. And I’ve come to a decision. I have more to give. I’m going to look for new ways to continue to tackle the stigma that affects not only those of us who experience mental illness, but also the availability and capacity of services to be able to tackle problems early with effectiveness and kindness. Watch this space.

And in the meantime, here’s to everyone who does what they need to do to keep on keeping on.

Go us xxx