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.