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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.