kindness

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.

 

 

 

 

 

#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

Beaten. But not broken

 

The Chattri, near Brighton

The Chattri, near Brighton

Dear Everyone

There are five stages to grief, as explained by Kubler Ross.

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance (sometimes called accommodation)

We do not progress through the stages in a linear fashion. Some may have to be repeated. If we are not careful, we can get stuck at any of the first four, and never fully achieve the final one, of acceptance.

Today, those of us who voted Remain are feeling some or all of the first four stages. Only a few have reached the fifth by now. Some never will.

We have a right to feel angry. The referendum was unnecessary. Some time ago, David Cameron made a promise to appease certain members of his own party. He probably never expected to have to keep it.

After the result, the only honourable thing he could do was resign. As he did so, he was trying hard to appear to have achieved acceptance. But the catch in his voice gave the game away.

And he may never achieve it. Political careers in high office almost always end in failure. But this is failure of a most awful kind. Perhaps we can be kinder if our current Prime Minister shows statesmanship over the coming weeks and begins to chart the way through unprecedented choppy waters.

The reason many voted Leave was not about immigration or perceived European bureaucracy. It was a protest vote against the greed of big business, the banking crisis which has affected poor and vulnerable people much more than those who caused it, and a political ruling class that seems dangerously out of touch.

Can we listen really carefully to those who feel this way? We need to heed their voices, as well as the cries of anguish from those who voted Remain. And listen to both groups above the triumphal clamour of the minority who believe we have “got our country back”.

It is going to be very hard. Once hatred has been unleashed, it is hard to put it back in its cage. The rise of far right politicians and alliances are real and present dangers.

The size of turnout demonstrates that when people feel their vote will count, they are more likely to use it. So maybe we have to rethink our position on our current electoral system that disenfranchises so many.

And perhaps those towards the centre or on the left politically, if indeed such definitions are even valid in this context, can stop fighting one another and think about what matters? And who our real enemies are?

In the early stages of grief, it is important not to make momentous decisions. Words or acts of anger, hatred and blame will not help us.

So let’s hold on. Let’s be kind, to ourselves and to others. We are beaten. But we are not broken.

Yours, in solidarity with the human race

 

Ten reasons we are #StrongerIn. But whatever the result, we must take care on Friday

On the eve of the EU referendum, some thoughts:

  1. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting peace + protecting human rights
  2. Voting out is not a protest vote against big business. It’s a whimsical vote against future generations
  3. If the economy tanks, as experts predict, it will be the poor + vulnerable who will suffer
  4. We are part of Europe and part of humanity
  5. The EU is run by politicians we elect. And they appoint officials. Because bureaucracy is good for civilisation
  6. David Beckham says we are stronger in. So do Billy Bragg + Paloma Faith. And John Barnes, who was so angry about being misrepresented by Michael Gove that he phoned national newspapers and wrote this stirring piece on immigration and racism for the Guardian  
  7. Vote Leave have Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage + Michael Gove. have  
  8. Leaving the EU would cause havoc to the NHS. We would lose vital staff + face massive cuts because of recession
  9. Not all who vote Leave are racists. But all racists are voting Leave, according to . And I agree
  10. The British public are fighters. We are not quitters. We must stay in + fight to make the EU even better  

One final thought. Things have been said that are hurtful, even threatening. People have been told they are stupid, that they don’t know what they are doing. One politician has lost her life. Millions have been made to feel unwanted and unwelcome. Whatever the result on Friday, a great deal of damage has been done. It will take a long time, kindness,, compassion and forgiveness to enable us all to heal.

So let us have no triumphalism. No crowing. And no blame. And let us remember that the majority of public servants are good hardworking people. They do not gamble our pensions, live offshore in tax havens, or pay their staff below the living wage. This includes the politicians who are elected by us, the people, to make decisions on our behalves.

We live in a democracy. And that is a wonderful thing.

 

 

Be inspired #Confed2016

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This time last year, I wrote a blog for newbies going to the NHS Confederation Conference. I decided to do an update for #Confed2016.

These are my top ten tips for having a fruitful time. By the way, you don’t have to be going to Manchester to make use of it 😉

  1. Don’t try to see and do everything. Be choosy. Treat the conference like a festival. By all means tweet about what you hear. But do also give the events you choose to attend your undivided attention.
  2. If you only seek out sessions and speakers to confirm your views, you will waste time and money. Arrive with an open mind. Ask questions. And be prepared to learn new things and to unlearn old ones.
  3. Some people need no encouragement to network. But if you aren’t confident about bounding up to someone you admire with an outstretched paw, don’t worry. Practice saying #HelloMyNameIs to people who look like you feel – perhaps a bit lost or lonely. And remember what Dale Carnegie said: You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get other people interested in you.
  4. Dress for style AND comfort. These are not mutually exclusive.
  5. Never forget you are at work. Stay out late if you must. But if someone makes you an offer you feel you cannot refuse, say No. And mean it. What goes on at conference does NOT stay at conference.
  6. Take breaks. Go for a walk. Have a rest in your room. Do shopping or emails or visit the Lowrie. Drink coffee.
  7. At the same time, stay focused on why you are there. The NHS is in a bad way. It is not only being slowly starved of cash. Services are overwhelmed because current methods of doing things are unfit to meet the demands of so many people with multiple problems. We need leaders like you to find two or three changes that will make the most difference. And to devote their careers to making these things happen.
  8. Remember that innovation is as much about stopping things as starting them. That there are no quick fixes. And that culture eats strategy for breakfast*.
  9. You will meet folk having a hard time. Please don’t avoid them. Despite all the talk about compassion, our beloved NHS has become less compassionate. There is too much focus on inspection, compliance and performance. And insufficient attention paid to recovery, renewal and support. Please spend time with people working in very tough places. Listen if they seem angry or frightened. One day, this could be you.
  10. Take a look around you. Notice the top of the NHS. How very white and very male it is, despite the NHS workforce being 70% female and 20% BME. Ask yourself why this is so. And if you think it matters, do your bit to help to change it.

I’ve been to a few conferences. And been inspired. I hope you will be too. Have a wonderful time xxx

*This was never actually said by Peter Drucker or Edgar Schein, to both of whom it has been attributed. But it was what they meant. Sort-of.

In memory of Sally Brampton. You are not alone

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I was saddened to hear of Sally Brampton’s untimely death after a long battle with depression. She was 60, the same age as me. From my own experiences of depression, I know a little of how things must have been for her. My heart goes out to all who loved her. May she rest in peace.

Next week is Mental Health Awareness Week.

For those who are struggling, I say this. Mental illnesses mess with your head. They make you believe bad things about yourself. That there is nothing wrong with you other than laziness, moral cowardice, being hateful and lacking what it takes to lead a normal life. That you are not worthy of help. And that you must face this awful, isolating thing alone.

But struggling on alone is not a good idea. Nor is pretending to be OK when you are not. I know this from my own past, effective but wrong-headed attempts to keep how I was feeling to myself. In the end, keeping secrets just causes more damage. It can be really bad for you and those you care about.

If you are overwhelmed by negative or frightening thoughts, if life feels grim or even just pointless, please, please ask for help.

  • Talk to a friend or someone else that you trust.
  • Make an appointment to see your GP.
  • Check out the Grassroots Suicide Prevention StayAlive app – available free to download to iPhones and Androids.
  • Phone Samaritans on 116 123 or one of the other helplines.

If you don’t know what to say at first, or feel embarrassed or tongue-tied, it doesn’t matter. If you are afraid that the words won’t come, try writing it down.

Social media has been a massive help to me. I have made friends online who always seem to be there. They have been to those evil places. Not the same as mine, because we are all different, but their own terrifying versions. They know how lonely it feels.

Contrary to what you may hear, there are wonderful services available and treatments – medicines, many different sorts of therapy and other practical techniques – that work for most people. It can take time to find the right ones, of course. And it will take a lot of courage and effort on your part. There are no miracle cures. But I promise you, seeking help really is worth it.

Believe me, you are not alone.

What mental health means to me

I took part in a Twitter chat recently on the above topic. Thanks to @AnthonyLongbone for encouraging me to join in. Below are some thoughts I shared in advance.

What does mental health mean to me?

  1. Mental health is the most important part of health. And it is integral to physical health. You can’t look after your body if your mind is in a poorly way.

  2. Mental health is a continuum with optimal wellbeing at one end of the spectrum and mental illness at the other. Some people seem to be able to take good mental health for granted. For others, maintaining our mental health requires almost constant vigilance and care.

  3. Facing up to my tendency to depression has been the most important self-help step I have taken in my life so far. I’m hopeful I won’t ever sink as low as I did in 2013. But I’m not making any assumptions. And I do not plan to judge myself negatively if I do experience another bout either.

  4. Judging myself – or indeed others who experience mental illness – is the least helpful thing any of us can do. Who knows why I or anyone else has this tendency? What does matter is what I do from now on to help myself and allow others to help me. Which includes understanding my own triggers and warning signs.

  5. All serious illnesses require some degree of courage, so that we can face the pain and the treatment required to help us get better. But mental illnesses can be harder to bear than physical illnesses . They mess with your head.  They make you believe bad things about yourself and others. They take away your hope and they affect your judgement and even your personality. They make you isolated and afraid. Some people hear the voices of others telling them bad things. In my case, I only hear my own voice. When I am poorly, my internal voice is harsh, judgemental and cruel. It tells me I am worthless and evil. I am still learning how to notice that voice when it starts whispering to me, and how to answer it.

  6. Since I decided to be more open about my own experiences, I have made some extraordinary friends. Our mutual support during rocky moments via social media undoubtedly saves and enhances lives. I love the equality and the loving kindness of these relationships. We all have something to bring.

  7. It’s because of all this that I know how amazing other people who experience mental illness are. How courageous, funny, honest, thoughtful and kind – hearted.  And this is how I know, beyond all reasonable doubt, that people who have had such experiences have assets that should be applauded and sought by others. Rather than deficits to be pitied or avoided.

…………………………………………………………

After the chat, I felt a bit overwhelmed. The people who joined in were just amazing. Brave, honest, intelligent, thoughtful, generous and kind. I am in awe of them. They have far more of merit to say than I do.

In conclusion, what mental health means to me is being part of a group of wonderful people like the ones I was talking with tonight. They are helping me to become the best version of myself, which includes being kinder to myself. Through this, I can become kinder to others and do my tiny bit to help them too.

And I’m really grateful to be on that journey.