mindfulness

Mindfulness and Listening

The Chattri, near Brighton

Christians get upset about the commercialisation of religious festivals like Christmas and Easter. Increasingly I appreciate why.

It is probably just as annoying for Buddhists that meditation, fundamental to a generous approach to the world, also appears to have been hijacked. This Washington Post article suggests that the me-generation has taken a practice essentially about becoming self-less, and turned it on its head to be about self absorption via the mindfulness movement.

The argument is plausible, but I disagree, perhaps because my first experience of mindfulness was not at a self-indulgent spa. It was gained through hearing from mental health colleagues and patients engaged in mindfulness as an evidence-based method for helping to live with disturbing voices in the head, one of the most unpleasant symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses.

I wanted to learn more. I went on a few courses, Buddhist and secular, and began to practise myself. I was also lucky enough to play a tiny part in supporting The Sussex Mindfulness Centre which today goes from strength to strength in helping patients and practitioners to practise mindfulness in their daily lives.

There will be some reading this who detest mindfulness. I accept that it isn’t for everyone. I know that it doesn’t actually solve anything. And I am aware that when it is suggested casually to those in distress, it can belittle the depth of trauma and anguish they are experiencing. Mindfulness can be seen as a panacea, even a mumbo-jumbo cult. And in the workplace it can be misused as a low-cost alternative to comprehensive employee support.

I really do appreciate these views. And yet having experienced anxiety and depression myself and been helped by those who practise mindfulness, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Because there is something wonderful about people who are truly mindful. I’m learning this while I develop as a Samaritan. Listening really carefully without judgement to someone in distress seems to me to be the very essence of mindfulness. Samaritans don’t just learn how to do this once. We spend our first year in training. And then however experienced we are, we listen very carefully to one another, in order continually to improve. Because we don’t just care about our callers, we care about our fellow Samaritans.

A Samaritan shift can be the ultimate mindful practice. The room is peaceful and quiet. You listen, moment by moment, to your caller. You are listening in order to understand. You respond only when the caller seems ready, and use their words to reflect what you have heard. You give them space and time. You do not make suggestions and you do not judge. Your whole purpose is to be there with them while they explore their feelings and make their own decisions, if indeed they feel that any need to be made. The time simply disappears. At the end of your shift you debrief to another experienced Samaritan, not really about the calls, but how you handled them, what you might do differently another time and how you are feeling yourself. You are reminded of the valuable service you have given. And you go away feeling calmer and lighter because of the mental discipline and compassion you have been practising. That is my sort of mindfulness.

If you want to know more about how Samaritans listen, here are some wonderful tips.

And for those who like meditation, this is one of my favourite practices. It is about loving kindness. The point being that only if you are kind and forgiving to yourself can you be truly kind to others. It may be a huge effort. But it is really worth it.

This blog is dedicated to a good Samaritan who helped me to listen. May they rest in peace.

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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.

Lisa’s ten mental health rules

Rules are made to be broken. And anyway, these days we have far too many of them. Those who work in public services have little hope of remembering them all.

Despite all that, I wrote this list in tribute to the wonderful work of @nurse_w_glasses. And Moses. It applies as much to regulators, commissioners, leaders in NHS trusts, local authorities, private providers and charities as it does to frontline staff.

And all humans.

  1. Thou shalt always remember that the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. There is no health without mental health. And mental health is everyone’s business.
  2. Thou shalt always present a positive image of people who need help with their mental health. It is nothing to be ashamed of.
  3. Do not take the name of people who experience mental illness in vain. Never use terms such as nutter or psycho, even in jest. We may pretend we get the joke, but inside we weep.
  4. As with religious practice, working in mental health requires humility. Do not be dogmatic or rush to judgement of others. Instead, practise acceptance and loving kindness.
  5. Honour the people who choose to work in mental health, whatever career you personally have selected. They have not chosen the easy road.
  6. Killing other people is illegal. Killing oneself is not, but it carries huge stigma and casts a terrible shadow over those left behind. Learn how to help prevent suicide. And never condemn those who might consider it. They need your understanding if they are to seek help.
  7. Mentally ill people can be trusting and vulnerable. They may lack inhibition. Never abuse a position of power physically, sexually, financially or psychologically.
  8. Never treat people who experience mental illness with anything other than compassion and patience. If they make you feel angry or mean, get some help yourself.
  9. Try to tell the truth about mental illness and the current state of services. This is neither easy nor straightforward. They need serious attention and investment in the UK. There are no quick fixes. But relatively little will go a long, long way.
  10. Be hopeful about mental illness. Those who experience it from time to time can lead full and rewarding lives, with just a bit of love and support.  Like me.

What I did during National Depression Awareness Week

Now I no longer have a wonderful communications team to keep me briefed, awareness weeks like this one can pass me by. It was serendipity that I saw my GP yesterday and we agreed that I would start the final reduction of my antidepressants prior to stopping them altogether.

There are side effects to reducing modern antidepressants, also known as SSRIs, as well as significant risks. Reduction should be done carefully, with expert supervision. My GP has specialist mental health training and experience, which is also serendipity, as I didn’t know this when I shuffled into her consulting room at an acute stage of my last depression. She listens carefully to her patients, and works closely with us and secondary care staff including my psychiatrist. I am confident that I don’t get special treatment; she is equally compassionate and skilled with everyone. I do know that I am lucky.

It is shocking how many people think that you can go on the internet and become an expert in the treatment of mental illness. Without me asking for their advice, someone suggested that now we know that mindfulness works just as well as antidepressants, maybe I should try that instead? This made me smile to myself. I have given a presentation about the importance of access to mindfulness as a treatment option for anxiety and depression with the report author Professor Willem Kuyken to the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, Una O’Brien, and her senior team. So I do know a bit about it. But even so, with my own treatment, I need help.

As my dear friend @BiPolarBlogger said on Twitter, telling someone they should have a go at mindfulness is a bit like telling a person who can’t swim that doing the butterfly stroke is good for you. Such psychological techniques need to be taught with skill and practised regularly. And they are not for everyone. Mindfulness can be increase problems for someone with a trauma-related illness such as PTSD.

Actually, once I got over the hiding-under-the-bed-stage of my last depression, I found mindfulness to be a great help, and I use it most days. Yesterday I looked into a top-up course because, like all exercises of the body or the mind, repetition and building mastery are essential. Which isn’t the same as taking a tablet.

I have to confess to feeling anxious about coming off my little pills. There is something about putting them out before I go to bed, and then taking them on waking in the morning, that helps me remember my own fragility. It is a little daily act of self care. I might forget to floss my teeth, but I have never forgotten to take my medication.

People like me who experience depression have a tendency to be extremely hard on ourselves. I’ve written about this here and here. Medication prescribed by a doctor that you cannot buy over the counter is a reminder that someone who knows what they are doing believes that you need and deserve help – even if you don’t believe it yourself.

As well as upping my game on mindfulness, I am also doing more work (paid and voluntary) and preparing for a gruelling bike ride. And I’ve bought a new book called Reasons to Stay Alive by the wonderful @MattHaig.

Reasons to Stay Alive

Reasons to Stay Alive

And finally, I am using CBT techniques – facing the thing that frightens me and through this, allowing the fear to subside naturally – to help me. My blog is part of this.

Thank you for reading it. I hope it helps you or someone else xxx

 

Please take care, Twitter can be cruel

I love Twitter. But it can be a cruel place. Personal attacks and even threats of death are not uncommon. Sue Perkins and Jack Monroe are the latest high profile quitters following unrelated horridness – in Sue’s case, she was attacked for being (wrongly) tipped as Jeremy Clarkson’s replacement on Top Gear. Jack’s was about supporting the Greens on the election. Death threats for this? There are no words.

I’m nowhere near their league, but I’ve had my share of online nastiness, and it continues. It can be overwhelming when you are under an onslaught from many directions. And unless you reply and risk even worse, other more measured folk won’t know what’s happening, because the vile stuff won’t appear in their time line.

I am of the “Whatever we wear and wherever we go, Yes means Yes and No means No” generation. I don’t see why bullies should frighten us away from places that belong to us all. But I’m also concerned for my own wellbeing and that of others.

It is good that Twitter are cracking down on abuse – better late than never. Meanwhile, here are my tips for staying emotionally safe and still getting the best from Twitter.

  1. Be yourself but think really carefully about how much you share. Social media is still a relatively new medium. Some are already regretting earlier openness. I’m thinking particularly of people like me who experience mental illness from time to time. Talking with others who have similar experiences really helps, because with diseases of the mind, unchecked irrational thoughts about ourselves can snowball and be really bad for us. But sharing also makes us vulnerable. Only a handful of people have accused me of psychological weakness, attention seeking or of using my depression as an excuse for past failings. Even fewer have defaced my image, called me vile names, and traduced my appearance, intelligence, morals, motivations and career. I have forgiven but I cannot forget their words. On a bad day, I imagine that others may feel the same way about me. On a really bad day, I may even agree with some of this shit. So please, take care.
  2. Be wary of individual tweeters who follow few people themselves. They may say interesting stuff, but they are unlikely to be interested in an online conversation with you. Maybe you don’t mind just reading their views? It’s a good way to start, especially if you are shy. But most of us are on social media because we want to exchange thoughts, share experiences and ideas.
  3. Don’t just follow those you know you will agree with. It might feel cosy to be in a cocoon of like – minded folk, but it won’t stimulate or enlighten. If it weren’t for Twitter, we wouldn’t know the odious extent of the views of, say, Katie Hopkins on people seeking asylum. What better spur to get the previously disaffected to vote than the thought of people like Hopkins (who always vote, by the way – they know their rights) getting more of a say than us non neo-Nazis? We need to know these things.
  4. Take the plunge and join in conversations when you haven’t got a view or are still making up your mind. Some people think that being open – minded, even undecided, is feeble or wishy-washy. I disagree. Just be sure that when you in one of these discussions,  everyone is treated with politeness, including you. Be prepared to walk away if that doesn’t happen.
  5. Join in with conversations that are happening at the time you are actually on Twitter. Prepare yourself so you don’t feel too hurt if people whose views you admire don’t respond. Just move on and chat to someone else. Don’t assume people are being rude; they might be but that really isn’t your problem. Easier said than done when you desperately want a reply, I know!
  6. Try not to get involved in those angry ding-dongs where an increasing number of @names get added, until in the end there is no space to say anything. If you get copied in, these are best ignored, in my experience.
  7. Don’t be heavy – handed with the Block button. Some people collect blocks like trophies, and will proudly list you as a person who lacks empathy along with others you may prefer not to be associated with. And you won’t know about this if you have blocked them. Save blocking for porn sites, annoying bots and people who are genuinely harassing you. And for the latter, do also report them. Twitter are rightly upping their game in dealing with online harassment. If you are being repeatedly harassed by someone, you may also need to check if they have other profiles. In my experience, these are relatively easy to spot. And do also report them to the police. They definitely do take action when serious threats are made.
  8. My thoughts here are aimed at people like me who are able to tweet as individuals. The freedom we enjoy compared to those in public positions cannot be underestimated. I’ve been in one of those jobs, and written about use of Twitter from that perspective here. It is great if such people can share something personal of themselves, but it is a big ask, given what can happen and the impacts. Which leads me to my final point.
  9. Don’t rush to judgement of others. No-one knows what it’s like to sit where they are sitting, other than they themselves. Be kind, always. Never, ever make remarks like James May did recently about those who made death threats towards Sue Perkins. He only made a bad situation worse. If you can’t be kind, walk politely but firmly away.

I’ve blogged in the past about forgiveness. If you haven’t seen it and are interested, here it is.

I’m still practising by the way.

 

What I have learned through recovery

An episode of clinical depression isn’t sadness. For me, it starts with brittleness and a growing sense of doom. I stop sleeping and become increasingly irrational and irritable. Beyond a certain point, I am unable to ignore or control it. Eventually, something snaps. I am smothered by a suffocating blanket of nothingness. The only feelings to permeate are deep guilt and self-loathing. All perspective is gone; I ruminate endlessly over things I have messed up and those I have hurt. I am frozen, unable to speak, or crying. The tears do not soothe. I detest myself.

Luckily I don’t feel like this all the time. Having been on my latest road to recovery for the best part of a year, I have learned a few things about looking after myself that I want to share.

  1. Choose to be all of me: having learned that it is so much better to be open about my experiences of mental illness, I now have to work hard at not allowing depression to become my defining characteristic. It is just one thing about me.

  2. Expect less: if someone likes something I have done, that’s lovely. But I need not feel disappointed if they don’t.

  3. Mindfulness: live in the world and be in the moment. Enjoy the little things – rinsing a cup, the warmth of the cat’s fur. Stop rushing.

  4. Going out: notice how exercise in the fresh air, even in wind and rain, makes me feel strong and alive. Embrace it and do more.

  5. Stop ruminating: I’ve wasted a lot of time going over and over things. It is important to learn lessons when something goes wrong – CBT has taught me to face the difficult stuff with less fear. But knowing when it is time to move on is a skill that needs frequent practice.

  6. Choose to forgive: This goes with number 5, and I like to think I am better at it than I was. Again, I have to practise every day.

  7. Create order from chaos: people think I’m tidy, but the more distracted I am, the messier I get. I have learned that, on a day when I am feeling low or anxious, I need to create order. Write a list, tidy a shelf, weed a flowerbed – completing a small task that brings order is soothing.

  8. Buy less stuff: I thought I loved shopping, but it made me feel guilty to spend money I couldn’t afford or could have given to someone more in need. Now I try to buy less. Except fresh vegetables.

  9. Make do: this goes with 8. I gain increasing satisfaction from mending things, making something from something else, or giving something of mine to someone who can make good use of it.

  10. Treating myself: on bad days, addictive substances such as alcohol, caffeine and chocolate can seem like treats. It takes some of us a lifetime to learn that they aren’t. A soak in the bath, a walk by the sea or some quiet contemplation in a sacred space can feed the soul rather than flooding the brain with dopamine.

  11. Competition: for me, best avoided, except with myself when trying to improve personal performance.

  12. Listen hard: I used to miss so much or misunderstand because I was too busy interpreting what people were saying and working out what response I should give. I am learning the value of listening really carefully. It is amazing what you hear when you listen properly.

  13. Don’t shy away from things that feel difficult or scary: it takes huge courage even to leave the house when you are in the early stages of recovery from depression. Standing up in front of 200 people in my first week back at work, I wanted to die. But I am so proud that I did it. I have found that, as I get better, I thrive from the boost to my endorphins that comes from feeling fearful yet excited about a new challenge, preparing carefully and managing my nerves so that I do a good job. I feel very lucky that in my new world, there are plenty of opportunities.

  14. Stop pretending: when someone asked me how I was, I used truly to believe it was a dereliction of duty to say I was anything other than great. I have learned to tell the truth about how I am – some days I am good, and some just OK. And when I am not OK, I am better at saying this too.

  15. Choose kindness: people have often said of me that I am kind and generous. This came at a cost. I have learned that to be truly and effortlessly kind, one must start with oneself. The love I feel for other people and the kindness that flows from me towards them has multiplied as I have let go of negative feelings towards myself. I am far from perfect and still have many faults, but I am worthy of love. This helps me to help others more than I ever could before.

These are just my thoughts; if they help someone else, that’s great. But please, don’t shout at me if you disagree. We are all different. And that’s what makes us so amazing xxx