nhs

How are you doing today?

I love talking about mental health. What could matter more? This blog is drawn from ideas I have developed (and squirreled) while thinking about well-being at work for a slot I did at the Health at Work Conference in Birmingham last week, and in advance of an NHS Employers webinar on staff well-being yesterday. I used an earlier version of this blog to give my talk, and I warmly thank everyone who contributed. Your questions and comments were wonderful and you will be able to see that i have made some changes because of them.

And what an exciting day yesterday was. Because the Girl Guides Association announced their first mental health badge. It has been developed with the excellent charity Young Minds. It uses theories about emotional literacy and resilience to help young people take care of themselves and help others. If only they had done this 48 years ago was I was a Girl Guide. And wouldn’t it be great if such an approach could be rolled out across all schools and colleges and youth groups? What a brilliant start this would give young people facing the world.

At the conference last week, we heard from companies large and small who are putting employee wellbeing front and centre of their investment strategies. And this isn’t because of any sense of duty or even kindness. They know that it pays. They want to know the best ways to help staff achieve optimum health and how best to work with employees who have physical or mental illnesses to manage their conditions and get back to work quickly and well.

If we consider the NHS as one employer, it is the largest in Europe, many times bigger than even the largest multinationals at that conference. And yet we seem slow to follow suit. I say we…I don’t work for the NHS any more. But having done so over a period of 41 years, I feel deeply concerned for its staff. So I was very grateful to take part in the NHS Employers webinar.

Well-being and resilience are the new buzzwords. They are being used everywhere. I like them. But I also have a few issues with them. If we aren’t careful, well-being strategies can feel as if they place responsibility on the individual. And I see well-being as a partnership between the individual, their employer, their co-workers and anyone else they choose to invite to help them achieve their optimum health.

I like the Maudsley Learning model of mental health very much. It shows a series of steps and explains that we are all on a spectrum of mental wellness. I like the way it removes a sense of us and them.

But there are nonetheless inherent dangers in such models. Unless you have felt the terrifying symptoms of psychosis, clinical depression, an eating disorder or any of the other hundreds of mental illnesses, you might think that mental ill-health is merely an extreme version of the distress that anyone might feel when something bad happens. Using well-intentioned euphemisms like mental distress, intended to reduce stigma, can add to the isolation felt by people who experience mental illness. It’s important to say that most people won’t ever experience mental illness, just as most people won’t ever experience cancer or diabetes.

But 1:4 of us will. And we need skilled help from our employers if we are to go back to work at the right time and give of our best. The last time I was ill, I was lucky that I got the right help. Not everyone does. And that is why I do the work I do now, campaigning to improve things in the NHS and beyond for patients and staff.

I shared two specific insights at NHS Employers webinar. The first is that we separate mental and physical health for laudable reasons but at our peril. Obesity might get more sympathy if it were treated as an eating disorder; the most effective treatments combine diet with psychological support, including CBT techniques. Exercise is known to increase endorphins and improve mental wellbeing as well as physical health. People with serious mental illnesses die on average at least 20 years too soon, mainly because of associated poor physical health. And there is an increasing evidence base that people with chronic physical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and strokes have a greater tendency to experience clinical depression. Which comes first doesn’t really matter.

Employers should, in my view, use this knowledge of the inherent links between mind and body to devise their wellbeing strategies and make this explicit. Bringing the mind and the body back together needs to become the next Big Thing.

And secondly, I am increasingly of the view that people who experience mental illness, who are open about it and learn to live well with it despite the massive challenges it poses, can become even better employees than those who don’t have these experiences. I’m talking about people like many of the friends I have met since I came out about my own depression. Such people show extraordinary resilience, compassion for themselves and others, patience, creativity and highly developed social skills that would be valuable in any workplace. They are truly amazing. I try not to have regrets. But one of mine is that it took me far too long to realise that my experience of mental illness could become an asset, if I let it. So now I’m trying to make up for lost time!

I want to share links to my other blogs that I think might be helpful to anyone thinking about wellbeing at work.

This one is about taking the plunge and talking about your own mental health, perhaps for the first time.

This is my plea to be kinder about obesity, because what we are doing now simply isn’t working.

This is about the things you can say and do to help a friend or colleague who is experiencing mental illness. And the things that really don’t help.

These are my ten commandments for working in mental health

This is a blog in which I thank people who have helped me in my journey of self discovery – still very much a work in progress.

And this is my Letter to You. Which you might want to suggest to someone who you think may be struggling.

Life is hard for most employees these days. Working in the NHS holds particular challenges. Stress at work doesn’t have to make people ill. But it can. Employers can make a difference. And so can co-workers.

Please take a moment to think about your colleagues, especially the ones who are having a tough time, seem a bit quieter than usual or not quite their usual selves. Ask them how they are. And really listen carefully to what they reply.

And if you are one of the 1:4 of us who experience mental illness from time to time, I say this: go us. Because we rock. 😎😎😎

Wishing and Hoping and Blogging and Tweeting

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Bad selfie with 2 lovely Twitter chums @AgencyNurse and @AnnieCoops

Last Thursday, 3 March 2016, I facilitated a couple of seminars at the East Midlands Leadership Academy social media conference. Two days before the seminars, I invited anyone who felt so inclined to help me prepare via Twitter and a blog. I then used an updated version of the blog I had initially written as my audio-visual aid for the seminars. It was my very own small action research social media project.

Thank you to the 450 people who read the original blog, commented on it and/or joined the two seminars. I called the seminars Wishing and Hoping and Blogging and Tweeting, which hopefully gave attendees a hint that I’m no expert and that I take a don’t-wait-for-permission-but-ask-for-forgiveness approach to my own use of social media.

You can see the first blog and the comments on my blogsite directly below this one. Thank you very much indeed to Zoe Bojelian, Liz O’Riordan, Chris Richmond, John Walsh, Phil Jewitt, Annie Cooper, EM, Natasha Usher, Sian Spencer-Little, Lloyd Davies, Linda, Vicki W and Laura Hailes for taking the time to comment on the blog.

I apologise to Fenella Lemonsky, Gill Phillips and anyone else who tried to comment but were stymied by WordPress and/or their own social media platforms. I don’t know how these things work, but I know how annoying it is when they don’t.

I also warmly thank everyone who helped share my requests to get involved or commented themselves via Twitter, including @bipolarblogger @hpiandycowper @davidgilbert45 @AgencyNurse @whoseshoes @jbmccrea @kirsti79 @andrew_davis @noshinakiani @carolinewild @LindsayHobbs51 @HubTube @OrganicLemon @LisaMillerVC @NHSE_PaulT @AlysColeKing @PeterMEnglish @HollowDave @MargoJMilne @endless_psych @JYoolz @QueerAndConcise @ethicConsult @allyC375 @HealthWKTD @ pgtips42 @LearnHospice @alisonleary1 @Lindawr45160138 @Lucy EMLA @LucyMorley1 @JennyTheM @PatientOpinion  @DaniG34 @JOMWLever @emetalic @DanileOyayoyi @MConroy09  @GeorgeTruSATCGirl @AMKane87 @ImtiazGiriach @ElizabethJSays @DebElSayedd @GeorgeJulian @LyndsayShort1 @NickiH @bigronstevenson @wendynicholson @andrewbeee @rosgodson @wendyJNicholson @gremlin2C @mynameisAndyJ @sara_J_Brown @penny_thompson @jackiecassell @claudemmx2 @roz_davies @sweeternigel @nonnazoo74 @garethpresch @anyadei @beckyOT @claudia_writes @spencer_sian  Sincere apologies to anyone I have misspelt or missed out.

Most of all, I want to thank the two sets of participants at the seminars. When I asked them where they were on a scale of 1 = social media virgin – 10 = social media warrior/maven, the lowest score anyone gave was a 4, and I think that person was being overly modest. There were lots of 7s and 8s and quite a few 9s. Given I would put myself at 6.5, it felt rather like a master-class in reverse. Which is the story of my life.

I’ve drawn my personal learning points from all of this into a list below, and included some references for you.

  1. It is possible, and great fun, to crowd-source a seminar, even a podium address in the way I’ve just done. Yes, it takes more time than the usual approach. And it doesn’t finish on the day. It is important to thank people properly who have made the effort to help you. I hope I have paid enough attention to this. The benefits are the potential to engage many times more not only with your direct audience but also with others via social media. And to widen your own learning in ways you could not have imagined.
  2. My personal approach to using social media is how I tend to approach most new things – I jump in and have a go, and work out the rules as I go along. This isn’t the wrong way, but nor is it the right way. It’s just my way. However you choose to get started, putting yourself out there is undoubtedly scary. It is important to take care. If you are in a high profile role and/or a health care practitioner, this very well constructed article by Annie Cooper and Alison Inglehearn is just great. It will help you stay safe.
  3. My session last week was about using social media as an individual who may (or may not) happen to work for an organisation. NHS social media guru Joe McCrea (@jbmccrea on Twitter) gave a fascinating presentation at the same conference about the use of social media by NHS organisations. He is about to publish a seriously interesting report – please do keep an eye out for it on his wesbite.
  4. The mental well-being side of social media can be either overlooked or understated, in my experience. I thank several folk for reminding me to remind others to be aware that social media is only a very small part of the world. It can be a source of solace and support, as I have often found.  But it can also be vicious, mean, self-righteous and damaging. And because people can hide behind anonymity, bad behaviour is invariably worse, goes more unchecked and can be more intrusive than in face-to-face interactions. I wrote this blog about Twitter  last year. I think what I said then still holds true.
  5. Lots of people want to share their ideas by blogging but have yet to get started, and are keen to choose a good blog-site. I can’t recommend any specific sites because I’ve only used WordPress. I do like it, but like all software, it has downsides. I would just remind you that, however much you like the site you have chosen, unless you are paying for it, you and your readers ARE the product. If we want independent writing to thrive, we MUST somehow pay for books, journals, newspapers and maybe even blog-sites. Otherwise it won’t be long before the only things available to read are the ones that carry adverts or are sponsored from a commercial or otherwise partisan perspective.
  6. Quite a few people have pointed out the difference between posting comments on social media sites like Twitter, and blogging. Which is that the former is for swift repartee, and the latter is for more considered thoughts.  I agree. But I would also argue that blogging helps us to work out what we think. And we can use Twitter and other chat sites for this too. After all, there is no point getting involved in conversations if we have already made up our minds about something. Here is a bit more about why I blog.
  7. This slide deck on the role of social media in health is from my extraordinary friend Dr Helen Bevan (@HelenBevan on Twitter – if you don’t know who to follow, follow Helen). Helen is a genius in new ways of thinking, including social media. She presented this at a social media get-together event at the beginning of last week. I’m sad I couldn’t go, because it looked highly informative and fun.

Finally, I thank Annie Cooper for sharing this lovely video poem about the social media imprint we leave behind us. Like all good things on social media, I promise it will make you think really hard. Which is the best sort of thinking.

A mixed week: updated Sunday 21 Feb 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the week wasn’t all bad.

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

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

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

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

One day I hope you will read it.

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

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

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

Thank you.

 

Blessings

books

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

The hardest thing of all

I’ve been watching the desperately sad story unfold of the awful, untimely, preventable death of a young man with learning disabilities. Only those most closely involved can comment on what led to his death. But what happened afterwards has become extremely public.

Having done the job I once did, I feel the need to share some thoughts.  I know this may provoke strong reactions. But to be silent suggests complicity about unfair discrimination of vulnerable people, lack of compassion and the opposite of openness in how the NHS too often deals with mistakes. And I am not complicit.

The media, including social media, can be a massive force for good. The media can shed light on things that need to be uncovered, especially where the interested parties are far apart. And in the case of campaigning journalists like Shaun Lintern, they can help families eventually get to the truth. Although they really shouldn’t have to.

The NHS is at long last waking up to the fact that the public understand bad things can happen. The public know that the NHS is staffed by humans who, by dint of being human, make mistakes. And that there are risks inherent in almost everything that the NHS does or doesn’t do. They know some mistakes occur because staff are careless or stressed or tired or overstretched or poorly trained or badly led. And they are realistic; they also know that a small number of staff do terrible things deliberately. But the NHS still needs to appreciate that the public will not accept cover ups.

Below are some of my lessons on running services for vulnerable people, learned the hard way, by experience. And by not getting things right myself all of the time.

  1. Running NHS services is very, very hard. The hardest part is when things go wrong and patients are harmed or die in circumstances where this could have been prevented. It is what causes those in senior positions, like the one I once held, sleepless nights and to question our own fitness to lead. If leaders don’t have sleepless nights like this, they are almost certainly in the wrong job. Being a decent leader in one of these very hard jobs starts with having respect and compassion for those we serve. And the humility to admit mistakes.
  2. Leaders in the NHS need to be curious and ask questions. They need to seek the truth, however hard this may be. They should surround themselves with others who are curious too and not afraid to challenge their leader. They need clinicians of the highest integrity with deep knowledge of the care they are responsible for to advise them. And although NEDs and governors who pose difficult questions may occasionally be wearisome, good leaders know that such people are invaluable at questioning what might seem obvious and to upholding core values. I may not always have shown this, but it is what I truly believe.
  3. Some time after I left, I noticed that my old trust had been criticised for apparently taking too long to complete serious incident reviews. And I recalled my own occasional frustration at the length of time it took to receive outcomes from a review when I was desperate for answers. But now I’m thinking again. Investigating something properly takes time, especially when extremely distressed people are involved. Those investigating must be open minded and objective. They need to be released from other duties. They must not take everything they are told at face value. And they need the remit and backing to do whatever is needed to get to the facts. Timeliness is important, but not at the expense of uncovering the truth.
  4. I recall an attempted homicide by a patient. We were so concerned to find out whether we risked a recurrence that, rather than an internal investigation, we immediately commissioned a specialist independent organisation to investigate and report to us, with no holds barred, on the care and treatment of this patient. This informed us about some changes we needed to make. This approach was later commended by the coroner. But when a statutory independent review was eventually carried out more than three years after the incident, the reviewers devoted space in their report to criticising us for having commissioned that first report, even though they broadly concurred with the findings. There is no rule book for NHS leaders. You must work out what to do yourself. And often only learn with hindsight whether you got a decision right or wrong.
  5. The media onslaught that can occur after a serious incident can be all consuming and deeply distracting. The worst thing that can happen is that you are diverted from the real job, of providing good care and rooting out any that is less than good, into so-called “media handling”. I have been very close to getting badly distracted myself on occasions. My saving grace was probably having been a nurse first. But I don’t think that being a clinician is by any means essential to being a good NHS leader. Caring about what happens to patients is the only essential qualification.
  6. Apologising is never easy. But it can mean so much. Apologies should be sincere, whole-hearted, unqualified and platitude-free. They may not be accepted initially. They may have to be repeated, sometimes many times. The hardest meetings for me and those I worked with during my 13 years as an NHS CEO were with families whose loved ones had come to harm in our care. But I am so grateful to those people for giving me the opportunity to listen really carefully to them and to apologise to them in person. It may take a long time to achieve such a meeting, and sometimes several are needed. The effort is really worth it.
  7. The NHS is a microcosm of society and is institutionally discriminatory towards those who experience mental illness or have a learning disability. This is manifest in poor staff attitudes, low expectations, inadequate investment, silo thinking, paucity of data including comparative benchmark information on incidents, and the negative way the rest of the NHS treats those who raise concerns about such things. I’m doing my tiny bit as a volunteer to improve matters but there is so much more for all of us to do.
  8. Talk of “numbers” without benchmarks and other good quality comparators can also be a distraction. Every unexpected death of a vulnerable person needs to be investigated to see if it could have been prevented. And that takes resources, which are in short supply in mental health services these days where the brunt of cuts have been made despite all the rhetoric about “parity of esteem”. Coroners are also overwhelmed; it often takes years before inquests into such deaths are completed, which is agony for the families.

It really shouldn’t matter whether the person who died was young, talented, beautiful, courageous, funny or anything else. They were a person who mattered. My heart goes put to anyone who has lost a loved one, and especially to those whose deaths were in some way preventable. You have to live with “if only” for the rest of your lives.

And that is the hardest thing of all.

 

Let’s be kinder about obesity

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

I always liked the beach

I always liked the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy World Mental Health Day, NHS

Like the Booker Prize, World Mental Health Day seems to come round faster each year. Both are a time for celebration. In the case of World Mental Health Day, it is also intended to raise awareness on the importance of wellbeing, of not stigmatising people who experience mental illness, and of the links between how people are treated – at home, at work and in their communities – and the mental health of the population, which impacts on everything, including the economy.

I will write about literature and mental health another time. Of interest to me this year is another juxtaposition with World Mental Health Day. I’m talking about the belated announcement on the state of NHS finances for the first three months of 2015/16, and what Professor Keiran Walshe has described as the triple whammy:

  • Lack of adequate growth funding to match the inexorably increasing demand of an ageing population and the many new treatments which patients have grown to expect
  • Much higher expectations on standards and staffing from regulators and the public after crises such as Mid Staffordshire
  • Pressures on the NHS caused by increasing problems in funding and delivering social care

There have been a number of wise comments on what this means, none better than by Professor Chris Ham of the Kings Fund. Here at 07.10 on the Today programme, he explains that the Treasury has no option but to foot the bill in the NHS and social care, OR the government must come clean with the public about the unpalatable choices that the NHS will have to make in order to balance the books.

This has never happened before in my memory. And I am worried for my former colleagues. There are now so many trusts in “special measures” that the measures can no longer be considered special. The organisations whose role was to support troubled trusts, the Strategic Health Authorities, were reorganised out of existence under the reforms that some seem to have forgotten preceded the current crisis. There seems little possibility of NHS Improvement, the new body about to be formed from the independent regulator Monitor and the Trust Development Authority, being ready or able to act with the speed, depth and impact required to stop the multiple trains about to hit the buffers.

There have already been a few high profile dismissals/resignations. And there are increasing concerns about the demands placed on those prepared to run trusts these days. Knowing that everyone else is in a similar position is not much help when you are lying awake in the small hours wondering how you will meet all the bills and not run out of cash while juggling all the other demands that keep patients safe. Doing this while wondering whether you will have a job yourself by the end of the month does not help.

Rosebeth Moss Kanter wrote about the difficult “middles of change” in the Harvard Business review in 2009. She said:

Welcome to the miserable middles of change. This is the time when Kanter’s Law kicks in. Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.

It’s worth reading the whole article and reflecting on why it is that we ignore such wisdom in the NHS.

The NHS is at the start of the most difficult middle it will ever face. At such a time, it seems vital to me that NHS trust leaders, staff, commissioners, regulators and partners do a small number of things, and take great care to avoid some others.

  • Remember why you are there. Hold hard and true to those values
  • Get in the same boat with everyone else and start rowing together in the same direction
  • Give praise and encouragement frequently and generously. Remember that humans need on average a ratio of 12:1 praise to criticism. People give discretionary effort when they are heartened. When they are disheartened, they lose hope and eventually give up
  • In particular, avoid criticism which plays to the gallery, scores points, justifies your own position or for which there is not a readily applicable solution
  • When making difficult decisions for which there are no easy answers, ask what you would prefer to be pilloried on the front page of the Daily Mail for. Then do that
  • In a crisis, kindness is much underrated. Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself. Only then can you be truly kind to others

Happy World Mental Health Day 2015 everyone. I send you much love. Thank you for doing what you do. You are amazing.