mental health

All in the Mind?

I love BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind. It takes a compassionate, measured view of what’s new in psychiatry and neuroscience. Presenter Claudia Hammond considers research into the normal functioning of the mind and brain as well as mental disorders and brain diseases. Claudia has been quietly beavering away on All in the Mind since 2006, debunking myths about mental health and mental illnesses. She does other cool stuff on mental health too.

In 2015, I was interviewed for All in the Mind about The Recovery Letters, written by people like me who have experienced depression to help others facing something similar. This is my letter. James Withey, the inspiration behind the Recovery Letters, has been working on a book which will include the original letters plus some new ones. It comes out later this year.

Anyway, Claudia ran a positive piece about the letters. So when I was contacted a few weeks ago by All in the Mind producer Lorna Stewart about making another contribution to the programme, it was easy to say yes. This time, it was to ask for my thoughts on a series of questions from listeners about getting the best from mental health services.

I went to the studio and had what felt like a good conversation. My understanding is that there will be short inserts most weeks amongst the main items that make up the programme. It is called An Insider’s Guide to Mental Health Services. Here is a link to the first programme.

Are here are some things I thought about before I was interviewed.

  1. We are all as different on the inside as on the outside. Advice that works for one person will not work for another. To be honest, the concept of even giving advice on such a sensitive subject troubles me.
  2. On the other hand, there are things it can be useful to think about which people who are distressed or in crisis may either not know or they may forget. Plus, mental illness messes with your head. It can make you think bad things about yourself and consider doing bad things to yourself which you might later regret. It certainly did that to me when I had my last episode of depression. A kind word from someone who has been there might just be a lifesaver.
  3. Just as with physical illness, mental illness isn’t one thing. For example, a chest infection can be painful, even dangerous, but will almost certainly get better with treatment. Whereas lung cancer is likely to be more serious, and some types cannot be cured, just palliated. While no mental illness is nice, they can vary hugely in severity and impact. In our modern world we have become preoccupied with diagnoses, so I won’t start listing all the possibilities here. Suffice to say, some people will experience mental illnesses which cannot be cured. Therefore they have no choice but to find ways to live the best life possible with that particular condition and all it entails. Others may experience episodes of mental illness from which it is possible to make a full recovery. This is a great blog on the subject by Bipolar Blogger.
  4. Staying in bed all day and avoiding other people may be all you can face when you are experiencing an episode of mental illness. But in almost all cases, it is not a good idea. Humans are social and even the shyest and most traumatised among us need human contact. This is why we are encouraged to talk to someone – a GP, a trusted friend or family member, or to call a helpline. Here is a recent blog by me called What to do on a bad day.
  5. All sorts of things can go by the wayside when we are experiencing mental illness: getting enough sleep; drinking sufficient fluid; eating healthily or even at all; taking exercise; going out in the daylight; spending time in nature and/or with animals; being with those who love and care about us; personal hygiene; wearing comfortable, weather appropriate clothes; not self-medicating with alcohol, nicotine or other substances; and spending time doing meaningful things. It is important not to force yourself, but trying to reintroduce a few of these gradually will almost certainly help, even if you don’t feel like it. Just do it gently. Take baby steps. And be kind to yourself. Progress towards recovery is likely to be slow and not linear.
  6. I am sure there will be quite a lot in the programmes about medication. It is a hotly debated topic. I will just say this: the best clinicians will work with you to find the right treatment for you. It might or might not include medication. What is right for someone else may not be right for you. Also, most medications take time to start working. And sometimes the side-effects can be really tough.
  7. It is true that anyone can experience mental illness. But people who face other major challenges find it even harder to cope with and experience more lasting damage than those who do not. These include financial hardship, homelessness or insecure housing, loss of job or role, social isolation, bereavement, loneliness, abuse past or present, bullying and relationship problems can both cause and exacerbate a mental health problem. We are all born with a level of mental resilience which is then either added to or depleted depending on our childhood experiences. How we respond to later trauma is linked to these early experiences. Most therapy is about learning to understand ourselves better and to care for ourselves in a positive, kind way.
  8. Specialist mental health services are experiencing unprecedented demand. They are all making attempts to modernise and improve access to services and the appropriateness of treatment. But severe cuts have been made over the past 5 years which have reduced availability and in some cases removed very good services altogether. The government says they are reversing this. Some of us are keeping a very close eye to see whether they honour their word. But this doesn’t mean you will get poor care if you are referred to mental health services. You may have to wait a while. But you will find that most staff go out of their way to provide effective, compassionate, safe care.
  9. Your key mental health professional is your GP. Many GPs are really good at mental health. It is a significant part of their work. But they are also under huge work pressure. If yours seems to be one of the minority who are not so good, or you can’t get an appointment, you can arrange to see another doctor at the same practice or even change practices. It is a good idea to do this at a time that you are not in crisis.
  10. People who need help with mental health problems are not weak. In fact they have to be very brave to ask for help, and to do the things that are needed to recover. Doctors, nurses and therapists can help, but most of the recovery work is down to you. People who live with serious mental illnesses are heroes. They should be applauded every day for their tenacity, patience and courage.

The most important lesson I have learned, and it has taken me far too long to learn it, is that I need to listen to myself and be honest with myself about how I am feeling. At the time, it seemed that my last major episode of depression came out of the blue. With hindsight, it had been brewing for many months. How ironic that I, who was running mental health services, should have been so bad at spotting my own warning signs.

Intervening early and getting help when you need it should be standard across the UK. I make no apology for encouraging listeners to All in the Mind to ask for help if you need it, and not give up if it seems you aren’t getting it.

And if you are feeling desperate or suicidal, please talk to someone. There are various helplines listed here. The one I personally recommend is Samaritans on 116 123 or email Jo@samaritans.org. They will listen and help you make your own decisions. It may not sound like much, but it can be the greatest gift of all.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Open dialogue

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I went to a conference in Nottingham yesterday to learn about a technique called Open Dialogue. I wanted to know more because of how it has revolutionised the care of people who are in crisis in parts of Finland and the US, reducing demand on mental hospitals and transforming lives.

I care deeply about mental health services, although I don’t run them any more. These days I campaign to make them better. I volunteer in suicide prevention. I chair the Time to Change mental health professionals project. And sometimes I need help from services myself.

I wish you could have been there too. Some massive pennies dropped, not just for me but for everyone who hadn’t already appreciated the possibilities. We learned that Open Dialogue is about being with people rather than doing something to them. And we realised that here was a way to mend things that previously seemed unfixable.

Let me explain.

There are some who say that the NHS is broken. And that mental health services are badly broken.

I’m not sure that broken is a helpful way to describe things. I prefer to think of them as badly wounded. And when someone is wounded, you take care of them.

I believe that people in highly influential positions do care about mental health. They are just unsure about what to to do, other than saying they care. They know that mental health services around the country are buckling under the strain of increasing demand. Referral rates have never been higher. And continue to climb. Services find it increasingly difficult to discharge people because there is nowhere for them to go. Staff are overwhelmed, and there is a growing recruitment and morale crisis.

Added to which, successive governments say one thing about the importance of mental health but allow the opposite to happen regarding funding. Despite the fine words and promises in the response to the Mental Health Taskforce report published in February, we heard just a few weeks ago from NHS Providers that mental health trusts are not seeing the promised investment and some are reporting funding cuts in 2016 – 2017. Parity of esteem? Actions speak louder than words.

How might Open Dialogue help?

Firstly, it isn’t simply a technique for listening really carefully to people who experience trauma and distress AND their families so that together they can work out their own solutions, with support. It is also an extremely respectful way for people to relate to one another, in teams, across teams, organisations, health care systems and society. Even the NHS.

Secondly, Open Dialogue is the antidote to what is sometimes called the biomedical model, when doctor knows best and patients are compliant. This works when there is a fairly simple problem and solution. For example, a broken leg. It doesn’t work for the vast majority of health conditions in which people need to become the expert themselves if they are to lead fulfilling lives. And it certainly doesn’t work in mental health. Mental health professionals know this. But we organise and regulate mental health services as though we were fixing broken minds instead of legs.

Open Dialogue builds on what some call the Recovery Model, based on hope and fulfilment rather than simply diagnosis and treatment. It provides a method to apply a recovery-based approach, involving the whole family and team. It is the antidote to outpatient clinics and ward rounds.

Thirdly, Open Dialogue provides the basis from which to challenge many of the perverse incentives and restrictive practices that have grown up in mental health care out of fear of incident, media criticism or what a regulator might say. Such as staff spending more time documenting care than in giving care. The absolute adherence to risk assessment even though successive independent investigations show it to have limited predictive value. And risk management, which taken to extremes means that those who might possibly pose a risk to themselves or others, are cared for in inhumane conditions with no privacy or dignity, no sheets, cutlery, shoelaces, phone chargers or indeed any other item that someone somewhere has said might pose a risk. And yet we know that ligatures and weapons can be fashioned from almost anything. And that people who are ill, frightened and alone can be driven to do increasingly desperate things. The greatest risk management tool available is compassionate, skilled attention. Open Dialogue offers high quantities of that.

Open Dialogue is being used in a growing number of services in the UK. A research bid has been submitted and passed the first round of scrutiny. If successful, it will explore human, clinical and cost effectiveness, as well as developing a model that is scalable and sensitive to local circumstances.

I want to thank everyone at the conference for opening my eyes. Including Tracey Taylor, Simon Smith, Pablo Sadler, Lesley Nelson, Jen Kilyon, Russell Razzaque, Mark Hofenbeck, Julie Repper and Steve Pilling.

And to Corrine Hendy, who I first met at an NHS England event about putting patients first last year: Your journey from being locked in a mental hospital to becoming a skilled mental health professional, public speaker and highly effective advocate for Open Dialogue, is more inspirational than any you will hear on X-Factor. I want to repay the inspiration you have selflessly given.

I’m going to do what I can to spread the word.

 

Three blogs and a bike ride

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week.  I’ve written three articles, visited a friend, given a talk, attended a party and been on a bike ride.

There’s been some other more difficult stuff which I don’t feel able to write about just now. More anon.

I wrote this piece about the loss of Sally Brampton through depression and what is assumed to have been suicide.

Suicide casts a long, cold shadow. My heart goes out to all who have lost someone that way. And to all who have tried to keep them safe. There is sometimes talk of failure in such circumstances. I fully understand why. But it can be cruel and destructive to those left behind. It can affect the grieving process and have terrible repercussions. I decided a while ago to devote some of my time to being a volunteer in suicide prevention. This work can of course be distressing. But is so worthwhile. If more people were involved in understanding about suicide, it would improve compassion and more lives might be saved. Blame doesn’t save anyone. If anything, it can have the opposite effect.

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On Monday I popped up to Rugby to see the lovely Gill Phillips and learn more about the groundbreaking work she does through her company @WhoseShoes. Gill had a special birthday this week – now she’s nearly as old as me! I love the way that this entrepreneurial woman has started a new adventure. I hope I can support Gill to bring Whose Shoes to the world of mental health. Go us!

Just Giving asked me to write this list of ideas to help people to manage their own mental health. It’s been fun watching the list grow throughout the week, and hearing comments from unlikely places about the tips. I just curated the list – none of them were invented by me. I try to follow them, not always successfully.

And I wrote this piece called Serendipity for NHS Employers. It was also Equality and Human Rights week. It was serendipitous to bring two things together that matter very much to me but which I hadn’t realised before had so much in common. I’ve had some useful feedback. It has sparked conversations about how we can use Mary Seacole’s legacy to inspire young people not just to dream, but to work hard and not be deterred by setbacks from achieving their ambitions.

One of my ambitions is to see the top of the NHS become less white and less male. Nothing against you guys, but as it says in my blog, the way things are now just isn’t representative. And having an unrepresentative leadership breeds alienation and resentment which has a negative impact on services.

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On Thursday afternoon I spoke at a Brighton Housing Trust Health and Wellbeing Service event (photo above). I was invited there to inspire the women with my experiences of being a high profile woman who is also open about my own mental illness. But to be honest, it was they who inspired me. I heard some stories I will never forget. I want everyone to know what we agreed, which is that people who live with mental illness have assets to share. Rather than deficits to avoid or accommodate. I’m going to be returning to this theme in the future.

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I was at the beautiful Black Cultural Archive in Brixton on Thursday evening at a comedy night with a purpose – to thank all the ambassadors and trustees who have spent 12 long years raising money for the Mary Seacole Statue.  That’s me with our brilliant and indefatigable Vice Chair Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE. Mary’s statue goes up in six weeks – much more about this soon.

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And on Friday I was out cycle training with my friend Sally who is joining me on Ride 100 on 31st July when we will be raising money for Samaritans. You’ll be hearing a lot more about that shortly. Suffice to say, after doing 20 miles of hills, including the notorious Box Hill (twice) we felt pretty smug 🙂

 

I wasn’t going to write another The Archers blog but….

My first Archers blog was about why it’s wrong to accuse someone of having a mental illness as if it were an insult. My second was about the chicken and egg relationship between mental illness and domestic abuse.

And this one? Well, it’s about the anguish we feel for women like Helen who find themselves caught in an abusive relationship trap. And my wish to make sense of this gripping story in both literary and psychological terms

How the story makes us feel

I defy anyone who has actually listened to The Archers recently not to find Helen’s situation upsetting. This week’s interview with her barrister, the apparently brilliant Anna Tregorran, was particularly so.

I know some people are saying it is too much. I understand. But I also disagree. Fiction plays an important role in our emotional and psychological development. It helps us to understand the bad things that can happen and practise emotions that we may one day need to use in real life. This is why so many children’s books feature cruelty, unfairness and loss – Bambi, Black Beauty, Little Women, Harry Potter.

Most listeners to The Archers don’t need to prepare for domestic abuse themselves. But they will undoubtedly come across someone else who experiences it. If Helen’s story has raised people’s awareness even a little, so that they are alert to the signs and don’t pretend it can’t happen in any family, then that is a very good thing.

Reflections in literature

I heard The Archers producer Sean O’Connor on the Today programme this week speaking about the literary references evoked by this storyline. He mentioned the Thomas Hardy classic Tess of the D’Ubervilles, which I could not bear to re-read because what happens to the central character is so awful. It made me think of that other classic, A Pin to See a Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse, which has an equally grim denoument.

Women touched by madness who turn on their cruel husbands appear in other works of fiction, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Both meet sticky ends, whereas their husbands survive, albeit scathed.

In real life, the last woman to be hanged in the UK was Ruth Ellis. She killed her abusive lover, handed herself in to the police and stunned everyone including her trial jury and executioner with a dignified acceptance of her fate.

Why can’t the police see through Rob?

I’ve been puzzling about this. Of course, it works for the story that Rob remains plausible for the time being. But is he faking it? Probably not. People like Rob, ie narcissists, really do believe their own hype. His reaction, being pathetically sorry for himself and yet capable of sticking his own metaphorical knife into Helen as soon as he gets the opportunity, is not how most of us would react to being stabbed by our partner. We would be deeply traumatised, shocked and inarticulate. Like Helen. I am really hoping that Borsetshire’s finest have got a good psychological profiler on the team who will help them see through his glib account.

Is it better for Helen that Rob has survived?

Initially, perhaps not. Rob is now a witness. The police must listen to his story and he will do his best to implicate Helen as a mad, bad attempted murderer. Plus he is allowed to see Henry and so has the opportunity to manipulate him and plant untruthful ideas to confuse the child about what he may have witnessed. Which at the very least was that Rob got the knife out and was inciting Helen to cut her wrists just before the incident occurred.

On the other hand, attempted murder is better than murder. At some point, Helen will start to remember how Rob made her feel. Without the guilt of having killed him, and with the help of her legal council, she will hopefully start to judge herself less harshly than she is doing at the moment. And the pain of Rob being allowed to see Henry when she cannot may just be the motivation she needs to make her fight for herself. As she was doing when the incident occurred.

What could happen to Helen?

I’m no legal expert. But I know a bit about mental illness. If Helen is convicted of attempted murder, I hope she would be assessed not to have been in her right mind at the time of the assault. She would then hopefully be sent to a secure mental hospital to receive expert treatment and care. With the right help, she could be released on licence within a few years. And with luck, she would see the children while she was in hospital and get help to look after them when she comes out.

But in reality there are not enough places in secure hospitals for women. And in any case Helen already seems to be being led down a criminal justice pathway rather than a mental health one. And so the likelihood, if she is convicted, is that she would go to a women’s prison and spend a number of years behind bars. The baby would probably be removed from her soon after birth because she would be considered a risk, based on the nature of her offence. And Rob would go to court and probably be successful in getting full custody of both boys. Helen is already at high risk of suicide; this outcome would increase her risk level.

But the most hopeful scenario is that, with support, Helen will be able to mount a successful defence that she acted in self defence and/or provocation because of the abuse. She might then be given only a suspended sentence.

But she will still have to fight Rob for custody of her own children. She faces a long, hard battle. And we all know her resources are already depleted.

What does the story tell us about the way we treat women?

For me, this is the key question. There are numerous real life cases of women serving sentences for the murder or attempted murder of abusive partners, despite suffering years of cruelty and abuse. When partners, usually women, act as Helen did either in self defence or because something finally snapped, they are judged harshly by the media and by juries.

And is it also disturbingly the case that only a fraction of those who abuse their partners are ever convicted of assault. The new offence of psychological abuse has only seen a handful of convictions. Plus it will only apply in Helen’s case as a defence – Rob is not the one who has been arrested and charged.

There are no winners in domestic abuse. Victims often get blamed not only by the abuser but also by others. If there are children, their long-term mental health can be permanently affected by living in a culture of fear and violence or even being separated from their mothers, like Henry.

We need a more humane, honest approach to domestic abuse. We need to talk openly with boys as well as girls about what loving relationships are. And what they are not. And we need to find better ways to challenge the way partners, male or female, are treated by complete and utter tossers such as Rob.

The next time someone you know puts their partner down in public, speaks dismissively about them or seems overly possessive, remember Kirsty. Maybe you could find a way to speak to the person you are worried about, and ask if they are ok. Even if they brush you off, know this: at some level they will have been listening.

And that might just be the catalyst for them to get help. Before it is too late.

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.