bullying

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.

 

Let’s stop being mean about people who are fat

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.

Fat-shaming is a recent phenomenon. People who do it include doctors, nurses, NHS managers, politicians, journalists, comedians and ordinary folk like you and me. And it is weird, because according to statistics, over 60% of us in the UK fall into the category of people being vilified for our weak will, stupidity, greediness and for costing a lot of money in unnecessary healthcare.

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 grew 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.

But our modern Western world has played havoc with these survival characteristics. As long as you have money, food is plentiful. 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 Talkthis 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 buy a newspaper and are told that if they also buy a 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 it 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 linked to body image and self worth, you would think that investing in prevention and effective treatments for obesity would be the place to start.

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 is there 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 learned this week that it has been witheld. Who knows what the real story is about who did this? I don’t really care. I just know that leaving obesity to individuals to tackle is unfair, ineffective and helps mo-one but the commercial giants who sell us all the 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 possible. Let’s¬†publish the economic appraisal to prove 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.

 

#NHSChangeDay is not a distraction from #Kirkup. It is how we will fix things

This week, a number of people have been challenging those of us involved in NHS Change Day to demonstrate its value. Particularly in the light of the Kirkup report about what went wrong with maternity services at Morecambe Bay Hospitals over an extended period.

For example @GeorgeJulian wrote this interesting blog.

There are others questioning whether NHS Change Day is a cult, a cheer-leading exercise led by those with not enough to do, a distraction from the grindingly hard work of running the NHS without sufficient resources, even an opportunity for organisations to put a gloss on how tough things are for patients and staff.

I can see why they might think that. I have another take on it.

The Kirkup report was shocking, for me even more so than the Mid Staffordshire Hospitals report. It got to the heart of what can go wrong when staff go rogue and collude, when key professionals who should be working together in harmony for the benefit of patients declare war on one another, when clinicians are simply not competent to practice, and when managers, commissioners, regulators and even the ombudsman indulge in a form of magical thinking, ignoring the evidence of high rates of death and other serious incidents and accepting assurances that should never have been given. The courage of families, including the man who worked at the hospital and lost his wife and new baby, and James Titcombe and his wife whose baby son Joshua died, has been extraordinary. We owe them a debt of gratitude for never giving up and continuing to insist that the evidence must be looked at properly.

So how can NHS Change Day help? I write now as a nurse and a manager. There have been many times in my 41 years when I have been aware of something not being right. The first time I blew the whistle, I was just 18 and hadn’t even started my nurse training. You’ll have to wait for my book to read the details; suffice to say, I was ill-prepared, it didn’t go well and I was sent away with a flea in my ear. Sometimes it was me that made mistakes, sometimes it was someone else; these things can happen, and we were rightly taught always to own up if we had erred. But what about the surgeon with the shaky hands that everyone was expected to ignore, or the night sister who slept in the laundry room when she should have been supervising us? Who wants to be hated for being a sneak and reporting people who are liked, or may be experiencing personal problems?

My blood ran cold reading about those midwives at Morecambe Bay. They reminded me of maverick teams I have known. Teams who are brusque and unwelcoming however hard you try to engage them, who repel enquiries, describe managers who visit their services and ask questions as interfering, or even talk about bullying if an aspect of their working practice is questioned. And what about more senior clinicians, such as doctors, who are described by colleagues as brilliant but eccentric, and can be extremely unpleasant and difficult to deal with. The ones who write you long letters describing, with great charm, the stupidity of your ways for trying to introduce a change to improve the experience of patients. These people are the exception, but they have a massive impact. I can remember as an executive being told by a senior clinician that to expect to see the results of their clinical audit reports was tantamount to a slur on their professional standing. Eventually a brave junior member of staff blew the whistle on this person. They were dismissed for gross misconduct, upheld on appeal. But despite a ton of evidence, their regulatory body decided to allow them to continue in clinical practice.

The point I am making is that it isn’t easy to be a whistleblower, nor is it straightforward to tackle poor practice. The law is loaded on the side of employee rather than the employer, rightly so, but in healthcare this can and does affect patients.

Initiatives like NHS Change Day are the antidote. They put patients and caring, committed, non-defensive staff where they belong, in the driving seat. Leaders, including patient leaders, set the direction and tone, patients and staff come up with the ideas, and managers support them to deliver these together. Those who object to the change being proposed have the opportunity to discuss it and put the alternative case forward. Ultimately, the majority will decide. Encouraging an open, enquiring culture that is always seeking to improve practice is the best possible way for the NHS to become safer and more compassionate for patients and the vast majority of staff.

It isn’t easy always to be open to change, but we should all be learning and improving continuously.

I’m leading the Time to Change initiative for NHS Change Day. This video explains why – the key bit is from 3 mins 20 seconds. I hope it explains why I feel so strongly about change and in particular, reducing the stigma of mental illness within the NHS.

Thank you.