Baby boomer meets digital natives

The organisers @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen and me

On Friday I spent a morning in Leeds with 100 trainees from the 2015 and 2016 intakes of the NHS Graduate Scheme. They had arranged a conference about digital media #NHSGetSocial. Thank you  @DanielOyayoyi and @RebsCullen for inviting me to talk about raising awareness via social media. That I, an ageing Baby Boomer, should address a group of Digital Natives on this subject felt hilarious. As so often these days, I gained much more than I gave.

En route to the event I did a bit of crowd sourcing via Twitter to help illustrate my session. This was the first response:

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The audience seemed to agree. They could think of examples of leaders who seemed uncomfortable with social media using it poorly, mainly to broadcast rather than interact.

There were also differences between how those with extrovert and those with introvert personality preferences interact with social media. Some had very sensible anxieties about tweeting first and regretting later. And others were honest about how hard they found it to decide what, if anything, to say via social media.

So I shared my social media tips:

  1. Do it yourself.
  2. Don’t rise to the bait or tweet when angry or under the influence of dis-inhibitors.
  3. Share opinions but remember they are only your opinions. Others may disagree.
  4. Where possible, stick to facts and values.
  5. Don’t believe everything you read.
  6. There ARE trolls out there. But not as many as you might be led to believe.
  7. Be kind, always – to yourself and to others.

And I shared some of the responses I had received that morning, including these from @nedwards1, @forwardnotback and @anniecoops

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The audience also seemed to agree with the Twitter response to my second question. We talked about the Daily Mail and other media that love to name, blame and shame politicians and those who work in public services but seem much less keen to call out wealthy tax avoiders or those who “create value” by paying minimum wages and offer zero hours contracts. And how even when they get things wrong they rarely apologise.

We talked about agent provocateurs and others who make things up and then either delete them or simply deny they have said it, even when there is photographic evidence to the contrary. The conspiracy theorists who lap this stuff up. And the anonymous characters who lurk on comments pages and bang on about no smoke without fire.

And we talked of the damage this all does to those who dedicate their lives to working in public life, but also how clinicians and managers can work together to call this dishonesty out, live by their values and counteract the post-fact world poison.

My other three questions were about patients and a paperless NHS.

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Again, although hardly a representative sample, my Twitter replies accorded with the audience. They said that attitudes mattered as much if not more than IT. I told them the story of a medical colleague who would write to me every six months or so during my 13 years as an NHS CE listing everything that he felt was wrong with how I was leading the trust, including the inadequacy of his secretarial support, in a 3 -4 page letter typed, somewhat ironically, by his secretary. I would always reply, by email. By contrast, my own psychiatrist, a world renowned professor at another trust, personally typed his update letter to my GP during our consultation and gave it to me to pass on. He would have used email but it wasn’t yet sufficiently secure.

We also discussed the pros and cons of clinical staff spending increasing amounts of time away from patients collecting and recording data that someone somewhere thought might be useful. And that the gold standard of a fully connected wireless NHS when patients and staff  freely shared information via iPad or other tablet device would happen one day. But that given the current state of connectivity, they probably shouldn’t cancel the contract for supplying paper and pens anytime soon.

Finally, I shoehorned in a reference to my muse Mary Seacole. I said that she, a 19th century health care entrepreneur, would have loved social media. And I gave Daniel and @HPottinger, in the picture below, my last two Mary Seacole enamel badges.


At the end I said that I would be writing a blog about the day. And I really hope some of them read it. Because those 100 young people made me think. Despite the financial challenges, morale problems, almost infinite demands plus the debilitating impact of our post-fact world, I think the NHS may be OK.

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And you know why I think that? Because these young leaders, and thousands of other clinicians and managers like them, will make it so. With shining integrity, stunning academic AND emotional intellect, insatiable appetite for understanding, capacity for working smart as well as hard, courage to speak truth to power, and wisdom far beyond their years, they will do it. They will help our creaking NHS adapt for the new era. Whilst holding hard to our core values of high quality, safe care for all, regardless of ability to pay.

And as one who is likely to need a lot more from the NHS in the future, that makes me very happy.

Take good care of yourself

Leaving flowers

Leaving flowers 2014

Another longer blog based on a talk, this time for Point of Care Foundation Community Conference on 27.10.2016

These days I usually introduce myself as a writer, coach and mental health campaigner. Sometimes I say I’m a charity trustee. I might talk about Grassroots Suicide Prevention and how we help to save lives by training people in mental health awareness and suicide prevention techniques. Or the Mary Seacole Trust and that now we have achieved a beautiful statue to the first named black woman in the UK, we intend to smash the glass ceiling that still holds back the careers in business and in public life of women and, even more so, BME people. Occasionally I mention my voluntary work with Time to Change, or that I am training as a Samaritan. And I might say that I love writing fiction, cryptic crosswords, cycling, making jam, Brighton and Hove Albion FC, the Archers, and my family and friends.

Only if relevant do I refer to my 41 year NHS career as a nurse and health visitor, then manager. I prefer not to be defined by what I used to do. I don’t want to live my life in retrospect. I may be over 60, but I feel I have so much more to do and give.

However, for the purposes of today, I need to explain that I was chief executive of a mental health trust in Sussex for 13 years, from 2001 – 2014. And now I am a recovering chief executive. I have Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists to thank for that description. And he is right; it describes me well. I have been writing a book about my experiences. I thought I had finished it. But then a few things happened and now I’m less sure. Nonetheless, I have insights I want to share with you.

The main one is this: please don’t do what I did as far as looking after yourself is concerned. I didn’t always make a good job of it. And it wasn’t only me who suffered.

It started with that over-developed sense of responsibility that many of us who choose a career in healthcare seem to have. We are often the first child in the family. If not, we are the one who looks after our siblings, even our parents. In my case, I was also the only girl. Being caring and helpful was expected, and the best way to evoke praise.

People with certain personality preferences have a tendency to choose a career in a caring profession. Another tendency of those with these profiles, and I am one, is to find it hard to say no. We also tend to take criticism personally, we can be overwhelmed by setbacks, and we can experience guilt more readily than those with other profiles. We are also find it very hard to tell others when we are not OK. None of this is set in stone, of course. They are only tendencies; one can learn to modify one’s responses.

The classic personality profiles for people in senior leadership roles are different. They tend to be confident go-getters, driven by vision, analysis and logic rather than feelings of responsibility. They like making decisions, challenging others and being challenged themselves. And so the tendency of leaders who do not fit such a profile is to try to act as though they do. And to pretend not to mind things that they actually mind very much.

I struggled a bit as a student nurse. But once qualified, I got huge satisfaction from clinical practice. I loved helping people, especially those down on their luck. I always will. 

I eventually moved into management via a series of lucky accidents.I had no long-term plan to become a chief executive, even a director. It just happened. I fell in love with the trust I eventually ran because of a chance meeting with some adults with learning disabilities who I had known as children many years previously. Their care wasn’t terrible. But it could have been so much better. And then a senior colleague told me that mental health services were a backwater and that if I took such a job, I would never escape to do anything else. And that was it really; I was hooked.

For the most part, it was wonderful for me to be able to influence the care received by people who were usually at the bottom of the pile, to challenge stigma and discrimination locally and also nationally, to be busy and in demand, and to have the opportunity to work with a bright, engaged team I had the good fortune to build from scratch. Whilst we were all different, we each cared deeply about providing care that we would be happy to receive ourselves or for a member of our own family to receive. And when the care we provided failed, we minded very much and did whatever we could to put it right.

But I also got some things wrong. I can ignore details if they don’t tell me what I want to see or hear. And I wanted every project to go well. So I sometimes reacted badly when not all of them did. I was often overwhelmed by self doubt and imposter syndrome. I had sleepless nights, especially after incidents when things went wrong for patients. I felt very lonely at such times, but I didn’t feel I could tell anyone – I thought I had to tough it out. And this was counterproductive because trying so hard to appear competent made me less approachable to others who were also struggling.

I also wanted my team to be one happy, harmonious family. Without breaking any confidences, I would overreact to disagreements and try to play the peacemaker when what we needed was more discussion and debate. It took me a long time to realise that I had assumed the role of parent or older sister, when a more adult to adult relationship would have served us better. I am grateful to those who persuaded me eventually to see this – we got there in the end.

Although suicide amongst those using mental health services accounts for only a quarter of such deaths, it is, very sadly, not an infrequent occurrence. It took me a long time to admit to myself that the reason I found it so distressing was because I knew something of how desperate those who took that step must have been feeling. And even longer to admit it to others. Although I worked hard not to show it, I found it almost unbearable to be criticised by regulators or via the media for failing to stop someone from taking their own life. I felt guilty both that we had failed, and that I wasn’t always successful in defending the efforts of the staff, who had often kept the person concerned safe for many years and were themselves also devastated. I also know that the effort of hiding my own distress sometimes made me less sensitive to theirs.

Risk assessment, of which much is made these days, is an imprecise science. Some believe it has no scientific validity in preventing suicide or homicide by someone who is mentally ill. And yet people lose their jobs, even their careers, over not applying it correctly. They are judged by those privileged to look at the full facts of a case at leisure, with the benefit of hindsight. Rather than under pressure in real time in a busy hospital or clinic or on a difficult home visit. And without enough of the right resources. Families can be led to believe, sometimes erroneously, that a chance event that has changed their lives forever might somehow have been predicted or prevented, and that someone must therefore have been at fault. Unless NHS staff have erred deliberately or been recklessly careless, it is seldom the right thing to do to blame them, whether they are a junior nurse or a very senior manager. It is cruel and reductive and unlikely to bring about positive change. In fact it is likely to make people fearful and to drive poor practice underground.

I am extremely grateful to those who helped me to understand a more nuanced way of thinking about suicide, especially to Dr Alys Cole-King of Connecting with People, my friends at Grassroots Suicide Prevention, and Samaritans. I also thank John Ballatt and Penny Campling, whose book Intelligent Kindness enabled me to understand what was wrong with the traditional NHS approach to serious incidents, as well as a few other things. And to the Point of Care Foundation, whose outstanding work helps professionals to nurture their compassion and non-judgemental curiosity, despite the challenges of today’s NHS.

Some people reading this know that I saw my first psychiatrist aged 15, and have been troubled off and on with anxiety and depression throughout my life. I am still trying to make sense of why i felt so ashamed of this for so long, and how I managed to get through 12 of my 13 years as a chief executive of a mental health trust without blowing my cover. All I can say is that I am well-practised at pretending to be OK when I am not. 

I eventually began to talk about it the year before I retired as my personal contribution to reducing stigma. It was even more painful than I had expected. I felt exposed and brittle. I couldn’t sleep or think straight. I was forgetful, jumpy and irritable and my judgement went downhill. I wondered if I was going mad, and in a way I was. I had such terrible stomach pains that I thought I might die. It would honestly have been a relief. And then I started to cry, and couldn’t stop. Driving home, I nearly crashed the car on purpose into the central reservation. It was only the thought of the fuss it would cause for others that stopped me. For the next 8 weeks I huddled in the dark. Slowly the kindness of my GP and psychiatrist and that of my family, closest friend and work colleagues made me realise that perhaps I wasn’t the worthless pile of ordure I had thought I was. 

Although I will let you into a secret; it wasn’t until I had been back at work a few months and had undergone a course of therapy that I finally accepted that I hadn’t been faking my latest bout of depression. And that I wasn’t the selfish, lazy, waste-of-space I was called by a nurse when I made an attempt on my own life many years earlier. His words stayed with me because I agreed with him.

If speaking up was hard, going back to work in January 2014 was harder. But it was also part of my recovery. It felt liberating to be able to be open about why I had been off. I found conversations with clinicians, managers and most of all patients were deeper and more meaningful. I was a better listener, and I wasn’t rushing to solve everything, as had been my wont. I found that I could listen properly to criticism, and appreciate what the other person was trying to say without feeling the need to defend the trust or myself. My final eight months before retiring in the summer as planned were the happiest of my whole 13 years.

If you have the sort of tendencies I have, here are five tips from me to help you take care of yourself.

  1. When something goes wrong and you or those for whom you are responsible make a mistake, try not to be disheartened. Allow yourself time to process what happened and why. Apologise wholeheartedly. But do not be rushed into snap decisions. Treat yourself and your team as a work in progress.
  2. When someone offers you criticism, try hard not to be devastated by it. But also try not to reject it out-of-hand. Take it for what it is, just an opinion that may or may not be useful.
  3. Don’t pretend to be someone or something that you are not. It is exhausting.
  4. Exercise is important, and so is eating well. But sleep is healing. We all need it or we can’t function. If you are having trouble sleeping, then you deserve some help. This advice from Mind is a good starting point.
  5. Remember that being kind to yourself is not selfish. It is actually extremely unselfish. Because it is only through being kind to yourself that you can truly be kind to others.

It was Carl Jung who initially wrote about the wounded healer. There is nothing wrong with being motivated to help others partly because one has issues oneself; such experiences can help the care giver to be more empathetic. But if we truly care about others, as I have learned at great cost, it is very important that we do not pretend to be OK when we are not.

Because, as Karl Rogers, a successor of Jung said: what I am is good enough if I would only be it openly.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy World Mental Health Day 2016

The theme of World Mental Health Day 2016 is helping people in distress. I’ve been asked to speak at an event organised by Mental Health First Aid. This blog is a precis of my talk. 

My brother lives in the US. With a foreign passport and a surname like Rodrigues, he – and we – are watching the American presidential election with vested interest.

Many times we have heard Donald Trump express views we know to be racist or sexist. But recently, he took aim at a new target: those with mental illness. He opined that soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder are in some way weak. As though being strong equates to having no feelings. Given recent revelations about other things Trump has said, there wasn’t a lot of fuss about this. Vice President Joe Biden said that the comment just showed how out of touch Trump is.

But actually he isn’t. Donald Trump is popular in certain quarters because he says what he knows many people are thinking. And in doing so, he speaks not only for some Americans, but for people in other parts of the world. Including the UK.

I want to tell you why Trump, and others who think like that, are wrong.  And not just because thinking that way is unkind. It is also wrong intellectually and on economic terms too.

Mental illness is in some ways like physical illness. If you know what you are looking for, you may be able to see it through a microscope or on a scan. And you can use chemicals to treat the symptoms, although not the causes.

And as with physical illnesses, the causes are multi-factorial. Just like cancer, which doesn’t happen to “weak” people, mental illnesses are triggered by genetic, environmental, social and behavioural factors.

But unlike with most physical illnesses, people make judgements about you if you are mentally ill. Nor do they think the sort of thing Donald Trump said. That people like me, and many of you, who experience mental illness from time to time, are weak.

In fact we are far from weak. Because another thing that differentiates mental illness from physical illness is that as well as having to cope with that sort of stigma plus the challenge of having an illness that messes with your head, people like us also have to learn to reframe our thinking and our behaviour if we want to achieve recovery.

It is important to understand the links between psychological trauma and mental illness so that it can be prevented as well as treated. And to realise that, with enough trauma, almost all of us will exhibit symptoms of mental illness.

Let me tell you about two people.

I met Ally a couple of years ago when she and I were invited to speak to new NHS managers. Since then we have shared a lot. She said it would be OK to write about her here. Ally’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was triggered through a toxic working environment, plus some specific events that occurred in Chernobyl where she was working, including the death of two colleagues, which were then covered up. She says that prior to this, she was a workaholic who self-medicated with alcohol. After these terrible events, she tried to raise her concerns but was ignored and bullied. She got ill, and eventually lost her job, became homeless and nearly died through self-neglect. But although some sat in judgement of her, there were people who took time to listen to her and to recognise that such terrible things would cause damage to any of us. They helped her to take recognise this and to take her first slow steps towards acceptance and recovery. Some were professionals but some were ordinary people.

Today, Ally still experiences the effects of PTSD. She is also one of the most well-educated, brilliant and funny people I know. She can hold the attention of the most erudite as well as very ordinary people when she talks about improving the NHS. When I watch her speak, I feel honoured to call her my friend.

Then there is Odi. Odi and I came across one another in 2005 over some changes to local mental health services. He wasn’t well, and I struggled to understand what he was trying to tell me. But there was something about him that was unforgettable. We met again, and gradually I learned that he had experienced terrible trauma including torture in troubled parts of Africa. This led to him hearing voices. He didn’t want to take conventional medicine. He wanted to heal himself through traditional non-invasive methods.

He was allocated a social worker who appreciated that to achieve recovery, Odi needed honesty, understanding and acceptance. Over time, and supported by that social worker, Odi used art and music to help himself and then others, eventually taking a dimg-20151024-wa0000egree in art therapy. He then decided to become a social worker himself. This year Odi completed his Masters in Social Work. He was awarded Student of the Year on his course at the University of Sussex, and has been shortlisted as national Social Work Student of the Year. I would be very surprised if he doesn’t win. He is wise and good and has the heart of a lion. Anyone who gets Odi as their social worker will be blessed. Like Ally, it is an honour that he has become my dear friend. The photo is us doing selfies at Brighton and Hove Albion.

And then there is me. I’ve written before about how I got to where I am now, and that I am still a work-in-progress. But for those who don’t know, I saw my first psychiatrist aged 15. He was kind. But he couldn’t help me with my feelings of self-hatred and despair because I convinced him that I was OK.  The next few years were pretty grim. I got through my nursing training by perfecting the art of seeming ok when I wasn’t. And when I ended up in hospital after an overdose and the nurse told me I was a waste of space and selfish because I was taking him away from people who were really ill, I believed him. In fact, I agreed. I had huge compassion for others but none at all for myself.

I have muddled through my life, and achieved some successes. But it was the attention and kindness of others, including Sue Baker at Time to Change, that eventually led me to realise that opening up about my experiences of anxiety and depression would be a generous act. Rather than a sign of my own weakness. I did so, at considerable personal cost, the year before I retired from the NHS. Nowadays, I know being open is not only kind to others. It is also a kindness to myself.

In being more open, I have made some amazing friends and learned so much. And the greatest thing is that people like me, and Ally and Odi, and some of you, are not flawed or weak. We have simply had to face things others have not. And in facing them, we have developed skills, understanding, humility and compassion that make us better humans than we would have been had we not had to do this.

This is why Donald Trump, who is wrong in so many other ways, is wrong about soldiers who experience PTSD. Those men and women who have served their country and found the experience traumatic are far from weak. They are human beings and also heroes. And they deserve gratitude, sympathy and support.

Thank you reading this. Thank you for helping others, for taking time to ask someone how they are. And thank you for really listening to what that person says. It is a wonderful, compassionate and extremely effective thing to do. You are helping to save and change lives.

You can learn more about helping others through programmes like the wonderful Mental Health First Aid courses and products.

I wish you all a wonderful World Mental Health Day 2016.

Dear Rob Titchenor

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Dear Rob

Last week I wrote a letter to Helen. It went down quite well. I’m not sure that writing to you will be quite so popular, but I feel rather strongly that you need support. Although probably not for the reasons you think.

You seem to believe that you have been badly wronged by recent events. Life is rather grim, despite the prospect of the new job. But until you take responsibility for the pain and psychological damage you caused Jess and Helen, you will continue to hurt others and yourself.

You talk about Henry and Gideon/Jack as though they were your personal possessions. Everything you say about them is expressed in relation to how you feel. This is not how good, loving parents behave. Good parents put their children’s needs before their own. They are prepared to give up anything for their children’s sake, even if that means never seeing them again. They would give up their own lives for them if they had to. Could you do that?

Your psychological development has been badly affected by your own parents. Your father is a cruel ill-tempered man who judges others harshly and withholds love. He has abused your mother psychologically for many years. She has learned to accept his put-downs and capitulate to him, including sending you away to boarding school when you were very young. This has left you deeply scarred.

You have absorbed your father’s misogynistic attitude to women. You love your mother but treat her as a useful fool. You treat the women you have relationships with as sex objects and workhorses to be manipulated and controlled. You are ultra-competitive, deeply jealous and you struggle with controlling your temper. You have an unreasonable sense of entitlement and you perceive your own attributes and the faults in others far in excess of reality. This causes you problems in your work and personal life.

Some people would describe you as a narcissist, a person whose psychological development has been arrested in response to excessive criticism or other trauma as a child. I’m not sure if such a label is useful, unless it encourages you to seek help. What I do know is that you need help. Badly. Because your behaviour is going to get you into really serious trouble one of these days. And because although you pretend otherwise, you are very unhappy.

It won’t be easy. You are going to have to rethink everything you currently believe about yourself and others.

It is possible that you can be rehabilitated. It can happen in real life as well as in a soap. And if you and the writers of The Archers can do it, it would be a good thing. It would send a positive message that it isn’t down to the woman and the criminal justice system to combat coercive control. The only thing Helen got wrong was to be vulnerable. It was you who targeted, hoodwinked, bullied, abused and raped her. So it is you who needs to change.

There are services available to help men like you. Although not nearly enough of them. Such work takes great patience and skill and it isn’t quick. But it is essential because there are far too many men who physically and psychologically abuse the women they profess to love. A few end up in prison. The majority get away with it. And go on to ruin the lives not only of those they have already abused but also of the next women and children who are unfortunate enough to form relationships with them.

So I encourage you to seek some professional help. Here are some useful numbers and websites:

  • Respect  – organisation that specialises in helping to end domestic abuse
  • Respect Phoneline 0808 802 4040 – Confidential helpline for those who are worried that they are abusing a partner
  • Refuge – website with information about help if you think you may be an abuser

If you can admit to what you have done, Rob, it would be a very good first step. You talk frequently about “being a man”. Facing up to being an abuser is what a real man would do. It will take considerable bravery. And it won’t be easy.

Helen showed immense courage in eventually standing up to you. Could you find courage like that to face yourself? I really hope so.

Wishing you well.

From Lisa

 

 

 

Dear Helen

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At last it’s over. You are free and safely home at Bridge Farm. The judge saw through Rob and gave you full custody of both boys. Your nasty husband won’t be allowed to see Henry at all and will only be able to spend limited time with Jack under Pat and Tony’s supervision.

The nation breathes a sigh of relief. We can return to wondering who will win the Flower and Produce Show.

But I’m still worried about you.

I’m worried because you can’t cut Rob out of your life completely. He’s Jack’s father, and he will no doubt be manipulative over access. And he’s still living in Ambridge. You have a divorce to face, with legal and financial settlements to get through. You have been very brave, but you are going to need to continue to be so for a long time. And that will be hard.

I’m worried that things may be rocky for a while with Henry. He’s only a little boy, and he is bound to have a reaction too. Despite ‘Daddy’ having been unduly strict and irascible, he was there when you were not able to be. Henry may resent you for disappearing while you were in prison: he won’t be able to understand why you couldn’t be at home with him. He may tell you he misses Rob, and you will have to work out what to say and do that will help him.

I’m also worried because you’ve experienced a series of terrible traumas – coercive control over two years, multiple rapes, the incident that led to the stabbing, imprisonment,  loneliness and separation from Henry. Plus the fear of being convicted, having Jack taken away and never seeing Henry again. You are a very private person; the trial must have been excruciating, with everyone knowing your business. These things will have had an impact. And there is bound to be a reaction. You may find yourself feeling flat and exhausted. Or even sinking into despair. Please don’t pretend to be OK if you are not. Please talk to someone, maybe your Mum or Kirsty, however hard it feels to do so.

And I’m worried that the reasons Rob was able to manipulate you haven’t changed. You are a thoughtful, caring person. But you are also vulnerable. You’ve lost a brother and a previous partner, and now all this. Even if you don’t feel the immediate need for professional help, when you are ready it might be good to explore the things that have happened to you, the impact they have had and how you want to live your life in the future. If you need professional help to do this, it is nothing to feel ashamed of. In fact it is a courageous and unselfish thing to do. Again it won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.

I’m not a complete idiot, Helen. I am well aware that you are a fictional character. But you represent something very real to listeners. You have touched a nerve in all of us about narcissistic charmers like Rob who in subtle and not-so-subtle ways undermine and manipulate their partners, leaving them confused, diminished, even broken.

We Archers fans love how this story has been given time to breathe. No other soap could have done this. As there is no other soap that could allow your character to face the aftermath of the abuse slowly and gently, in real time.

Some people think The Archers is all about smug middle class farmers to whom nothing ever happens, with a few working class folk thrown in for a bit of comic relief. How wrong they are.

Thank you Helen and The Archers for showing us what it’s like to meet Mr Wrong. It is a lesson that we all needed to learn.

Wishing you much love and luck for the future

Lisa

#DearDistressed

Letter for World Suicide Prevention Day 10th September 2016

Written for the #DearDistressed campaign launched today by Connecting for Health and republished here with their kind permission.

Dear Distressed

Thank you for opening this. You probably won’t feel up to reading much. So I need to grab your attention.

I want to tell you something. I have been where you are. I have felt that my life wasn’t worth living. Sometimes I knew why; mostly I didn’t. It has happened a number of times over many years. I have contemplated suicide. I even tried to take my life. But I’m very glad to be here because otherwise I couldn’t write to you now.

Making an admission about feeling suicidal isn’t easy. It can be shocking to face, for you and others. But also you don’t want people to overreact. You just want to be able to talk. And yet the chances are, you won’t have spoken to anyone about it. You may feel ashamed, as I once did. And still do, on a bad day.

Distress of this sort is overwhelming. Especially if you keep it bottled up. It blocks out the sun. Yes, it is different for each of us, because we are all different. But what makes us similar is the awfulness of it.  Lying awake for hour after endless hour, whether alone or next to someone you can’t talk to about the darkness of your thoughts. Everything seems pointless. You worry about stuff you used not to worry about. And the big things that were worrying you already are overwhelming. You feel loathsome, undeserving and useless.

So what might have helped me when I was where you are right now?

  1. It would have helped if I had managed to talk to a loved one or a friend. Eventually I have learned how to do this, although I still find it hard. I have been surprised by the kindness and understanding shown. Suicide is still taboo for some, but less than it was. And talking can really help.
  2. I called Samaritans a few times, from a phone box – there were no mobile phones in those days and I didn’t want to be overheard. They were amazing. They weren’t shocked and they listened really carefully. Nowadays calls to Samaritans are free so you don’t need credit. Ring 116 123 anytime, day or night, and talk to a trained volunteer.
  3. A hospital nurse once told me that I was a cowardly, selfish waste-of-space who had taken him away from looking after people who were really ill. I believed that nurse. And that was how I saw myself for many years. I wish I had instead remembered what a kind GP said when I apologised for bothering him, which was that I was worth the effort.
  4. I wish could have had a smart phone installed with the #StayAlive app by Grassroots Suicide Prevention for androids or iPhones. As well as useful information, advice and support, it encourages you to store reminders of how you feel on a good day, and keep special pictures and notes in one place. Now I look at mine most weeks. It makes me feel safe.

Learning to be kind to oneself can be a lifelong project. But if you aren’t kind to yourself, it is much harder to be kind to other people. For that reason, it is a generous and thoughtful thing to do. Rather than a self-centred indulgence, as I once believed.

Thank you for reading this. I hope it helped a bit. And if it didn’t, it doesn’t matter.

Because know this: you are not alone.

With loving kindness from

Lisa

Is #TheArchers like real life?

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We Archers addicts are waiting with bated breath for September and the trial when, we hope, serial bully and narcissistic cad Rob Titchenor will finally get his come-uppance.

But our hopes keep being dashed. Scruff has gone to his grave (alright, an urn in Lynda’s basket) without revealing the secrets of the flood. Shula’s confession (that she lied to the police and that Rob really did hit the hunt saboteur) may wreck her marriage and her saintly reputation. But it won’t help Helen. And Helen isn’t helping herself; she won’t tell Anna the full extent of the shameful secrets from her marriage to Rob.

It’s all very frustrating. Which is good for us listeners, because that’s what real life is like. As well as messy, inconclusive and often unfair. In this article from 2014, psychotherapist Philippa Perry explains why tragic events in fairy stories, books and films are good for children. They help them to practice the emotions needed to deal with real-life disappointment and loss.

We adults need the same. And we must prepare ourselves. Because the chances are that Helen will get convicted next month. I’m not saying this because I think she’s guilty. I believe that, at worst, she acted in self-defence. I say it because men like Rob often get away with it. The odds are stacked in his favour. He lacks emotions about anyone but himself. But he also plays the loving father and victim very well for short periods. He could fool the jurors. After all, he fooled most of us when he first appeared in Ambridge.

And the prosecution will paint Helen as an unreliable witness. We may not like it, but women like Helen, who have experience of mental illness, plus have had their confidence sapped by abusive partners and being separated from their children, often fare badly within our adversarial judicial system.

Some judges bend over backwards to make sure that vulnerable women get a fair hearing in court. But not all. The one who presided over the interim custody order for Henry seemed predisposed towards Rob. He was sharp with Anna and with Helen. Shockingly, that wasn’t unrealistic.

But we can still hope.

  1. We can hope that the trial judge is a bit more enlightened. But even then, the odds are stacked against Helen. Juries are made up of people representative of society. And like it or not, in our society, women are unfairly discriminated against, in court as in many other settings.
  2. We might also hope that Henry will remember what he heard, even saw, on the night that Rob got stabbed. Of course, we don’t know what actually happened. Or what Rob has subsequently persuaded Henry that he heard or saw. Henry could say something that makes things even worse for Helen.
  3. We can hope that Henry will tell the social worker that Rob has an evil temper, is always telling him to be quiet and a good boy, and does cruel things like threatening boarding school and confiscating his rabbit because it’s babyish. Rob’s parenting methods are based on what his own awful parents did to him. Plus he has told Henry that his Mummy is bad and has abandoned him. Henry may feel that Daddy is all he has left. The holiday with Pat and Tony has come at a good time. But we should be worried for poor little Henry, who seems unnaturally well-behaved given what has happened to him recently.
  4. We are of course all hoping that Helen will somehow find the courage to face what Rob did over many months when he isolated her, psychologically abused her, threatened her, belittled her and sexually assaulted her on the night that baby Gideon/Jack was conceived. And joked afterwards about her being a minx who made him get carried away. But Helen has buried those memories because they are disgusting and unbearable to her. She may never be able to face them, even though they hold the key to saving herself and her children.
  5. We can hope that Jess will have a change of heart and be prepared to tell the court what she has already admitted to Anna about Rob’s psychological and physical abuse of her too, and how she warned Helen about him. But it sounds like Rob has bought Jess off. And she is also probably frightened of him and maybe even still in thrall to him. As Helen may also be too. Men like Rob seem to mesmerise women. They wield physical power. But it is their psychological power that is the most threatening.
  6. We can even hope that somehow Stefan will reappear and spill the beans on whatever Rob did to cause the flood. Or that some other miracle will happen.

I’m definitely still hoping; the writers have had us on tenterhooks for a long time and we need a break. But I’m also preparing myself for the worst. Because  as a soap, The Archers must mimic real life.

And in real life, shit happens. Especially to people who don’t deserve it.