stigma

Is it Rob or Helen who needs a psychiatrist?

Last night, some of us were tweeting about The Archers. Specifically, about the scumbag Rob Titchenor whose latest act of psychological warfare against his wife Helen was to hit her and then make her feel so bad that, by the end of the 13 minute programme, she had apologised for making him do it. He then delivered his coup de grace, that she was in need of psychiatric help.

As you can imagine, this generated much debate. Quite a few people said that it wasn’t Helen that needed a psychiatrist, it was Rob. They said he was sick. I believe they are wrong. And I want to explain why I think this.

Is Helen mentally ill? And if she is, could Rob have caused it?

Only someone who is clinically qualified can really answer this question.  But as Helen is a fictional character and therefore unavailable for an assessment and formulation, we are entitled to make assumptions.

Helen has a tendency to depression, anxiety and problems such as anorexia in part because of her personality. She is someone who sets herself high standards and drives herself very hard. She has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. She judges herself harshly and punishes herself for her own perceived failings. And she reacts badly to criticism from others.

She has some additional risk factors. She is, or rather was, a single mother. She has experienced several major losses: her older brother died in a farming accident when she was a teenager. Her last partner died by suicide. Also, her father was recently very ill. Her younger brother went missing for a year and her best friend felt betrayed by her.

All of this makes her vulnerable. So Rob hasn’t exactly caused it. But he has exacerbated it. And now he is using it against her.

Isn’t Rob also sick in the head?

Rob is also fictional. We only know what the writers have shown us. But again, we can make assumptions.

He certainly shows narcissistic tendencies. He cares a great deal about his own feelings, but little for those of others. He views the world as there to serve him. He constantly reminds Helen that she is Mrs Titchenor now, and that she must dress and act to please him. Henry must be “obedient”. The coming baby is “my son”. The house revolves around Rob . He is jealous and actively excludes those Helen is close to.

He also has a nasty temper, is untrustworthy and lacks morals. He hit the hunt saboteur and later lied about it. He cheated on his first wife with Helen, and lied to them both. There are suggestions he may have lied when he worked with Charlie. And there has been at least one occasion where he either raped Helen or was rough enough during sex to cause her bruising round the neck. She seems uneasy near him.

But these are not signs of mental illness. They are the tendencies of all bullies, cheats and those who get through life by using others. Rob has chosen Helen because she is vulnerable, and has resources that he wants  – she has her own house, and will inherit half of the family farm business. And she can give him a child.

What about his mother?  Is she mentally ill?

Aah, Ursula. She is a manipulator. She probably learned to behave like this as a small child herself because her own family was dysfunctional. Her relationship with Rob is deeply dysfunctional too. She wants to please him, and will go to any lengths to do so. She perceives Henry’s unhappiness as bad behaviour. She thinks sending him away to boarding school will help him. Her interest in Helen’s pregnancy, labour and other intimate matters such as Henry wetting his bed is prurient. I wonder whether she is a sex abuser. She gives me the creeps.

Why can’t Pat and Tony see through Rob and Ursula and why can’t they see their own daughter is so unhappy?

Because they are nice people. And they are deeply invested in Helen having made the right choice. They feel bad about not warming to Rob at the beginning. The truth for them is too awful to contemplate…at the moment.

What will happen to Helen?

Who knows? Only the writers. Perhaps her love for Henry will override her feelings for Rob, and she will confide in someone like Tom or Kirsty and they will help her to escape. Or perhaps she will be assessed by a mental health professional who will ask all the usual questions about things that are troubling her, and leave her enough space to express the doubts about Rob that we can already see lie just below the surface. Or perhaps she will continue to be terrorised by him until something even more awful occurs. This is what happens in real life. And even if they get away, women who have been abused like this may suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lives.

Why do I mind when people confuse mental illness with bad behaviour and say that people like Rob Titchenor are mentally ill?

Because badness is different from madness. You can have both. But they are not the same thing. And until people stop equating them, and the media stops using terms such as  “paranoid schizophrenic” as a term of abuse, we have a very long way to go.

Of course we need to provide skilled intervention for those who abuse. They may have defects in their personalities (sometimes called narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathic personality disorder or sociopathic personality disorder) that cause them to lack empathy and feel compelled to hurt others. These terms are understandably helpful in forensic mental health services. But they should not be bandied about by the rest of us. Because this is skilled work. And also because, for people who have been diagnosed with a Borderline Personality Disorder, which has at long last been recognised as an extremely traumatic, treatable mental illness, being lumped together with people like Rob under the overall heading of personality disorders is distressing and adds to their stigma and alienation.

Time to Change is the national mental health anti-stigma campaign. Over the next five years, for which most of the funding is now secured, they will be tackling some of this harder, more intractable stuff with people who need more persuading. And people like me will be volunteering and writing stuff and speaking at events in support of their campaigns until we have achieved greater awareness, understanding and empathy for people like Helen.

The use of mental illness as an explanation for people who do abhorrent or otherwise inexplicable things is part of the stigma that those of us who experience mental illness face on a daily basis. Please try not to do it. Thank you.

PS: I’ve just noticed people on Twitter saying this storyline is affecting their mental health. Hmmm….It may trigger thoughts and feelings in those who have been abused and/or experience mental illness. But it won’t cause mental illness.

Anyway, people who don’t like it can always switch off. And watch Happy Valley maybe….

 

 

A mixed week: updated Sunday 21 Feb 2016

It’s a good thing we don’t know what the future holds. Otherwise we might never get out of bed.

On Monday, the long-awaited Mental Health Taskforce Report was published. And it made grim reading. Behind the awful stories about people being let down or receiving no treatment at all is the spectre of stigma. How else can it be that government ministers have spouted forth about No Health without Mental Health and Parity of Esteem whilst at the same time services have seen real terms reductions to funding far greater than other parts of the NHS. And despite referral rates continuing to rise? The suicide rate is rising again too, even among groups not previously considered to be at high risk.

The coverage was wide and mainly pretty fair. (I say mainly; the Metro managed to annoy almost everyone on my Twitter feed with an offensive headline.) I was impressed by what Paul Farmer and all my other friends on the taskforce have achieved, and by the measured response of NHS England and the Secretary of State. But instead of feeling proud to have played my tiny part, and girding my loins for the sustained effort that will be needed to hold the government and the NHS to account, I noticed my mood gradually getting lower throughout Monday. By the evening, I was overwhelmed with sadness that it has taken so long for so many people to be heard, and that many lives have been lost along the way. And I was assailed with despondency and a sense of utter failure for what I hadn’t managed to achieve in all those years I was running mental health services and had so much opportunity and influence.

Things got worse on Tuesday. I woke to find myself the subject of an article in my local paper, the Brighton Argus, along with a massive photo of me with a long-forgotten hair colour. It said that 19 staff at Sussex Partnership, the trust I used to run, had received severance pay-outs totalling several millions in the past four years, and that I had received the largest sum, £275k, in 2014.

It was wrong in every respect. The highest payment was £27.5k not £275k. And I hadn’t received one at all. And I felt tearful and scared and powerless and all the other things I remember about being public property for the 13 years I was a chief executive.

I minded most because leaving the trust caused me great anguish. Anticipating it almost certainly led to my last serious depression. Going back to work after my breakdown for another 8 months was very hard. It mattered greatly to me that, having managed to do so, I should leave on my own terms.

A few phone calls later, I was reassured that the story had appeared because of a combination of cock-up and further cock-up. Thank you to everyone concerned for your honesty; mistakes are always forgivable when people tell the truth. By the afternoon, The Argus had removed mention of me from their website and agreed to publish a correction the following day. Which they did. And today they published a letter from me here (there may still be issues with this link if you are on a smartphone. Try Argus Letters in your preferred search engine and ask your browser to use the Argus desktop site. Or try this link directly with the trust website http://www.sussexpartnership.nhs.uk/whats-new/no-severance-package-former-chief-executive-note-lisa?platform=hootsuite)

As I left the house yesterday afternoon somewhat surreptitiously to do some local errands and keep an appointment to give blood, I wondered what people must be saying behind my back. And I was reminded what it felt like to have no place to hide.

However, the week wasn’t all bad.

I was asked to appear on Radio Surrey and Sussex this morning to talk about the stigma of mental illness as part of the BBC #InTheMind series. You can catch me, Danny Pike and the wonderful Sue Baker of Time to Change here 1hr 10 mins into the programme.

Our choir has been rehearsing for a charity concert on Saturday afternoon – details here https://twitter.com/slondonchoir/status/699507596353499136 All welcome.

Brighton and Hove Albion drew away on Tuesday night with Championship leaders Hull and are now third from top, and only one point away from an automatic promotion spot to the Premiership.

And I have at last finished the first draft of my book, which is about being a chief executive who occasionally experiences doubts and depression.

One day I hope you will read it.

Update: I spoke too soon, which after 21 years following the Seagulls, I’ve found it’s easy to do. We got stuffed 4-1 yesterday by Cardiff City. Have a feeling this season could go right to the wire, just like every other year!

But the choir concert was – well I don’t have enough superlatives. Life – affirming will do. And today I helped my lovely husband Steve, who supports me in all my endeavours, to raise money for The Tall Ships Trust, a youth development charity to which he is very committed, via a jumble sale of boat stuff. The two of us were up at 5.00 am. By 2.00pm, we had made just shy of £1,000 which will help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to experience the joys and lessons that can be learned through sailing.

And I’ve heard from hundreds of people who’ve said kind things. Which for someone like me means more than I can possibly tell you. On Tuesday I was in the depths of despond. Today, on balance, I’m really happy to be me.

Thank you.

 

A bit of courage

The more worried I feel about expressing my views on a particular topic, the more interest a blog seems to generate.

I’ve written this in anticipation of the Mental Health Taskforce Report, finally due out next week. Although, I’m unsure what you’ll think, I feel the need to say some things I could not have said when I was doing my old job running mental health services.

  1. Mental health services are undoubtedly scary. But they are not all the same. The atmosphere and standard of care even on different wards in the same hospital can vary widely. It depends on the expertise and most of all the compassion of the doctors, nurses and the people in charge. If you have had a poor experience of care, either as a patient or a family member, that is terrible. It is vital that we face the fact that 1 in 3 people say they experience stigma within services. The Time to Change project I’ve been chairing addresses this, with more to report later this month. But at the same time, we must do all we can not to terrify people who need treatment. The chances are they will receive care that will really help. And if they start out assuming the worst, it will be even harder for the staff working with them to establish a therapeutic relationship. And this is the most valuable treatment tool available. I know this from personal experience.
  2. The standard and availability of care in mental health services also depends on the attitudes and expertise of those running and commissioning these services. There is a real and present danger that, faced with wicked choices of saving vast sums of money from the NHS, commissioners look to make savings which will cause the the least outcry, ie from mental health. This isn’t an opinion, by the way. It is a fact. In particular, they look at most expensive care, which happens to be in hospitals, and persuade themselves that the local population can do without most or even all of it. But they can’t. To try to “re-engineer” aka cut beds without careful testing and sustained investment in evidence-based alternatives is irresponsible and dangerous. And yet this is exactly what has been done and continues to be done all over the country right now. Lord Crisp’s report into the availability of acute mental hospital beds published yesterday laid the facts bare. It was a good start. And the access targets it proposes will help. But we still have a long battle to rid ourselves of stigma towards mental health services not only from society but also from the rest of the NHS.
  3. Alcoholism and misuse of drugs are symptoms of mental distress and/or of underlying mental illness. To treat them simply as addictions is cruel and pointless. It may seem cheaper in the short term to separate such services from the NHS and employ unqualified staff to provide care. And it may be politically attractive to take a punitive, non-therapeutic approach to those who self medicate with alcohol or illegal drugs. But to do so condemns vulnerable people to a half life of pain and a premature, horrible death.
  4. There are millions of treatments available for physical illnesses. The same is so for mental illnesses. But why is it that people think they have a right to comment on the treatment of others who are mentally ill in a way they would be unlikely to do for, say, diabetes or heart disease? It’s true that psychiatry and psychology are inexact sciences. This is why they take more expertise, humanity and humility than the other disciplines of medicine. So if you feel tempted to comment on someone else’s treatment, unless you are their trusted clinician, please don’t.
  5. There is no hierarchy of mental illnesses, and no patients who are more “deserving” than others. People who experience psychosis don’t deserve more pity than those who have bipolar disorder, or vice versa. And a short bout of clinical depression can be just as fatal as anorexia nervosa. Please remember this and put away your judgements.
  6. You can’t see mental illness. And that’s part of the cruelty. Getting up and going to a cheap cafe to spend the day with others who understand the challenges of mental illness might sound easy to you. If you feel inclined to bang on about the value of work to those for whom the thought of being compelled to attend a job interview causes them to seriously consider jumping under a train, please shut up. Just because some people don’t get sympathy from tabloid newspapers doesn’t make them any less of a human being than you.
  7. I’ve no problem with the use of words like bravery to refer to those experiencing cancer. And I know from friends with cancer that they have no choice but to be brave. But can we please recognise the courage, guts and determination of those who experience life with mental illness? And can we stop talking about suffering, because it implies passivity and weakness. The one thing I know about every person I have ever met who lives with a mental illness is that they are anything but weak. They are creative and heroic, in ways those who’ve never faced a life such as theirs can only imagine.

People who live with mental illness should be applauded and lionized. Not criticised, preached at, commented on, misunderstood and shunned. I hope next week’s taskforce report will recognise this.

Go us. Thank you.

Blessings

books

Books that have inspired me this year by @Suzypuss @jamestitcombe and @molly_speaks

 

 

 

 

 

 

To keep depression at bay, it helps to count one’s blessings. My Twitter friends are a very big blessing. Here are some thank you messages for 2015:

  • To campaigning journalists @andymcnicoll and @shaunlintern for supporting underdogs including mental health care and people with learning disabilities. Please never stop.
  • To Adam and Zoe Bojelian who lost their dear son @Adsthepoet in March 2015 but keep his legacy alive via Twitter. You are in our thoughts as you face a first Christmas without your wise, beautiful boy. We will never forget him and what he taught us.
  • To @JamesTitcombe who lost his baby son and has courageously campaigned for greater openness over mistakes in the NHS, despite some vile online abuse. I treasure my copy of Joshua’s Story. And I thank James for all he continues to do to make the NHS safer for patients and their families.
  • To all who bravely act as patient representatives, such as the indomitable @allyc375, and remind regulators, commissioners, managers and clinicians what the NHS is actually for. Only they know the cost of speaking up. Go Ally, @anyadei @ianmcallaghan @DavidGilbert43 and others who’ve earned the right to call themselves patient leaders.
  • And to @HSJEditor for taking a risk and running the first HSJ list of patient leaders. Thank you Alastair. I think it was a game-changer.
  • To those who’ve grasped one of the most feared conditions and are making life better for those living with it. I mean you, @dementiaboy and @dr_shibley. To you and others like you, thank you for refusing to leave dementia in the too-difficult box.
  • To @Liz_ORiordan who is generously sharing her experiences of breast cancer care, which for a breast surgeon is a pretty massive deal. And for some other stuff.
  • To @EastLondonGroup, who introduced many of us to a group of previously little known landscape artists from the early 20th Century. Sunday Morning, Farringdon Road has become a landmark of my week.
  • And to @penny_thompson, for pointing me to ELG and for always being true to her values.
  • To poet @Molly_speaks for painting pictures with words in her lovely new book Underneath the Roses Where I Remembered Everything
  • To @HPIAndyCowper, for his excoriating, original analysis of the NHS, and for his support to me in my scribblings.
  • To @clare_horton for running the excellent @GuardianHealthCare and even including some of my pieces. This meant so much.
  • To @seacolestatue @EAnionwu @trevorsterl @thebestjoan @pauljebb1 @joan_myers and many others for plugging away in the face of seemingly impossible odds. The Mary Seacole Statue will rise in 2016 as a permanent memorial to someone who showed how, if something matters enough, we should never give up.
  • To @nhschangeday @PollyannaJones @helenbevan dani_ellie @jez_tong @LydiaBenedetta @cjohnson1903 @WhoseShoes @fwmaternitykhft @DaniG4 @damian_roland and so many others for including me in NHS Change Day 2015. I was meant to be helping you but I gained many times more than I gave.
  • To @TimetoChange @suebakerTTC @paulfarmermind @carolinewild @danbeale1 @2gethertrust @NTWNHS @rethink @mindcharity and a whole raft more for being a major part of my life this year, working together to tackle the stigma that still exists within the NHS towards folk who, like me, experience mental illness from time to time but are so much more than our diagnoses. Here’s to you.
  • To @nurse_w_glasses @anniecoops @drkimholt @gourmetpenguin @AlysColeKing @DrUmeshPrabhu who show by words AND actions that compassion is alive and kicking amongst health professionals
  • To wonderful women leaders such as @SamanthaJNHS @BCHBoss @JackieDanielNHS @ClaireCNWL @CharlotteAugst @KMiddletonCSP @Crouchendtiger7 @DrG_NHS @VictoriBleazard @JaneMCummings @CarolineLucas @juliamanning @TriciaHart26 @clarercgp who stick their heads above the parapet and make the world a better place
  • And folk like @NHSConfed_RobW @ChrisCEOHopson @cmo @profchrisham @ProfLAppleby @WesselyS @nhs_dean @NHSE_Paul @ScottDurairaj  @stephen_thornton @jhazan @rogerkline  who prove that leaders on Twitter don’t have to be women to be fabulous
  • To bright, bubbly new leaders like @anna_babic and all those I’ve met via @NHSLeadership, who fill me with hope for the future. And to @Alannobbs @kirsti79 @NoshinaKiani and all the other great folk at the NHS Leadership Academy. You do stunning work.
  • To @GrassrootsSP and everyone who works to prevent the long shadow cast by suicide. Thank you.
  • To everyone who supported me in my bike ride for @samaritans in the summer. Especially @NurseEiri and @JackieSmith_nmc. They know why.
  • To @Suzypuss whose book The Other Side of Silence has inspired me to get on and finish mine.
  • To wise owls @johnwalsh88 @TelfordCC @KathEvans2 @gracenglorydan @timmkeogh @RecoveryLetters @profsarahcowley for being beacons when the world feels a bit too hard
  • To friends who also experience mental illness from time to time and who share their thoughts and feelings so generously. Thank you @BipolarBlogger @Sectioned @BATKAT88 @annedraya @clareallen @corstejo @schizoaffected @rabbitsoup_zola and many, many others. On a not-so-good day, yours are the tweets I look out for. You bring me hope.
  • If I could, I would add everyone else I’ve chatted with on Twitter this year. To everyone I follow and who follows me: Twitter is 97.5% good for my mental health, and that’s because of all of you. Thank you all so much. I wish you all much love for 2016. You rock :mrgreen: :😎💃❤

 

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

 

Let’s be kinder about obesity

Fat-shaming is a recent phenomenon. People who do it include doctors, NHS managers, politicians, journalists, comedians and ordinary folk like you and me. I write as one who has done it as well as had it done to me.

I always liked the beach

I always liked the beach

Here’s me as a baby. Fully breastfed, I was bigger than my tiny mother almost before I could walk. I take after my father. I am robust. I love my food.

Humans are built for survival. Some are wiry and can run fast for long distances. Others have staying power. In an emergency situation, chunky people like me can cope with cold and hunger because we can survive on our fat stores. We are the polar bears and the Arctic seals of the human race.

Our modern Western world has played havoc with these survival characteristics. As long as you have money, food is plentiful. But the least nutritious, most fattening sorts of food are often the cheapest. And the combination of sugar, fat and salt in many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate, ice-cream, crisps, milkshakes and even bread is, apparently, addictive.

This Ted Talk is enlightening. It helped me understand why losing weight is so hard. When you have gained weight, your body quickly adapts to being bigger, and adjusts your metabolism accordingly. Resetting the metabolic rate is extremely difficult. Once you have lost weight, you will probably have to eat fewer calories for the rest of your life to maintain your reduced size, even with regular, vigorous exercise. So you are fighting not only an addiction, but also your own nature.

And there is another factor. Many modern medications, particularly those used to treat various sorts of mental illness, have the unfortunate side effect of increasing one’s appetite. People taking them find they feel hungry all the time, and not surprisingly they eat more. I finished my antidepressants six months ago. Yet I have at least half a stone to shift, and despite extensive motivation and knowledge, it is proving a struggle. I know from chatting to others how distressing it is to gain four or five stone very quickly, with all the disability and stigma that goes with being overweight to add to the burden of the mental illness for which you have to keep taking the medication that leads to the weight gain.

I know people who have been to the doctor and been encouraged to lose weight. And then they go to the shop next door to buy a newspaper and are told that if they also buy a cheap monster size bar of chocolate (which contains more calories than they need to eat in a whole day but no protein, vitamins or roughage) the newspaper will be free. If this were cigarettes or drugs, we would be horrified.

Given the cost to the NHS of obesity, with its links to heart disease, strokes, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other long-term disabling conditions, not to mention depression, anxiety and agoraphobia associated with body image and self worth, you would think that investing in prevention and effective treatments for obesity would be the place to start.

I don’t like the term obesity epidemic. Obesity isn’t catching. Nonetheless, 60% of us in the UK are now either overweight or clinically obese.

There is mention of this in the NHS Five Year Forward View. But until this week, there has been no systematic appraisal of the best ways to help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight, nor a coordinated, evidence-based commissioning approach to weight-loss and healthy weight maintenance services. Public Health England have produced a report about sugar, but we have just learned that it has been withheld.

Who knows what the real story behind this is? I don’t really care. I just know that leaving obesity to individuals to tackle is unfair, ineffective and helps no-one but those who sell us all that stuff we don’t need.

Our current attitude to obesity is bizarre. Let’s tackle the food giants who push processed junk food at us from every direction. Let’s publish the public health report into sugar and do the economic appraisal that will prove beyond all doubt that helping people rather than criticising and lecturing them would in the end save a lot of money and even more unhappiness.

And most of all, let’s stop blaming people for doing what comes naturally.

This is an update on a blog I wrote earlier this year. I’m reprising it because of the fuss this week about Public Health England’s report into obesity and the Prime Minister’s apparent refusal to consider a possible tax on sugar.

 

Please do this and please don’t say that

Since coming out about my on-off relationship with depression, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me stuff and told me things. Some have been extremely helpful, some not so much.

Here’s my handy guide on what not to say to someone like me:

  1. Please don’t ask “So why do you think you get depressed?” If I knew that, I’d fix it. I’m trying to find out, but it’s a work in progress.
  2. Please don’t say “Have you thought about exercise?” You bet I have. And now I’m in recovery, I’d love you to come for a walk or bike ride with me. And see if you can keep up.
  3. Please don’t say things like “When I retire, I’m worried I might get depression like you did. How can I avoid it?” I don’t know! What I do know is that depression isn’t caused by one thing. If you’ve got to this stage in life without experiencing it, chances are you never will. But I can’t make any promises.
  4. Please don’t say “When I get depressed, I always…. (insert favourite pastime/exercise/indulgence.)” Thanks for the information, but you haven’t had depression. Or you wouldn’t say that.
  5. Please don’t say ” Do you think talking/writing about your depression might make it worse/bring it on?” No I don’t. Sure, exploring this stuff is painful. But psychological wounds are like physical ones. They won’t heal if you simply cover them up. They will fester. To heal properly, wounds need sunlight and oxygen. Being open is the antidote to the nasty old stigma which makes people who don’t experience mental illness feel embarrassed about it and people like me who do feel ashamed.
  6. Please don’t say “I never thought of you as the sort of person to get depression. I always thought you were so strong.” Yes. And that’s part of the problem. If you read Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, it will help to invert your thinking about depression. As it did mine.
  7. If I’m not on medication, please don’t tell me that I should be taking it. If I am, please don’t pass judgement, or ask if I have thought about talking therapies instead. And please don’t call antidepressants “happy pills”. People with physical illnesses such as cancer or heart disease don’t need well-intentioned, uninformed amateurs to opine on their treatment. People with mental illnesses are the same. It is neither good nor bad to take medication. It is just sometimes an essential part of getting better or staying well.
  8. Please don’t say “You seem too jolly/optimistic to get depression.” Again, do read Tim Cantopher. Depression is rarely a permanent state. For me, the stark contrast between how I feel when depressed and my state when well is close to unbearable.

Depression isn’t the same thing as sadness. In my case, it is a combination of self-loathing and emptiness. But we are all different. See my letter to you for further info. It includes the details of the book I mentioned above.

Having listed some Please Don’ts, here is a precis of what I have found, through experience, really helps.

Do please:

  1. Hold my hand when I need it
  2. Be patient
  3. Listen carefully and don’t overreact
  4. Resist judging
  5. Encourage me to seek professional help if I seem to be going round in circles
  6. Tell me you won’t allow me to let this thing define me
  7. Avoid defining me by it yourself
  8. At the same time, allow me to incorporate it into my life.

Like anyone who experiences any form of mental illness, be it lifelong or more fleeting, I am so much more than it. But it is also part of me. I am learning to accept this, as I hope you can too. Not for me, but for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness from time to time. Because this is the only way we will truly eradicate the stigma that so besets us.

Thank you for your kindness in reading this. It means a lot.