stigma

Watching my privilege

Trustees of the Mary Seacole Trust (from left) Jean Gray, Lisa Rodrigues (vice chair), Karen Bonner, Dawn Hill (President), Trevor Sterling (chair), Roxanne St. Clair (treasurer), Jermaine Sterling, Ros Trennick, Steve Marsh (secretary), Raf Alam.

In 1973, aged 18, I joined the NHS. My first job was at a learning disability hospital. It was a backwater for patients. And also for staff, 50% of whom were Black, Asian or other ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds. Since its inception, the NHS has recruited internationally in order to meet staff shortages in less popular parts of the service. That hospital relied on nurses from Ghana, Nigeria, the Philippines, Mauritius,  Sri Lanka and the West Indies to look after some of the most vulnerable people I have ever met.

Three months later, I left my new BAME friends to start nurse training at the prestigious Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street (GOS). Here, things were different. Of the 150 student nurses who started in 1973, 150 were female, almost all were middle-class, and every single one was white.

There were of course BAME staff at GOS. They worked in the kitchens and cleaned the wards. They served us in the canteen. There were a handful of black and Asian nursing assistants, and the occasional agency nurse. And there were BAME pupil nurses, doing a shorter, less academic course than ours, who would eventually become State Enrolled Nurses, a second-class role which precluded them from promotion to becoming a staff nurse or sister. I cannot recall a single black ward sister. 

This is not a criticism of my alma mater, by the way. Things were the same across all the London teaching hospitals. 

41 years later, we discovered that not much had changed. In March 2014, the year I retired from the NHS, Roger Kline published his excoriating Snowy White Peaks report. We learned that whilst 70% of the NHS workforce was female, and 20% BAME (30% BAME amongst nurses, and 40% BAME amongst doctors), the top of the NHS was almost totally white and predominantly male. 

This stinks. It is institutional sexism amd racism. I have written about it before, and how Mary Seacole can help us challenge such shocking stigma and discrimination. 

On Thursday 29 June 2017, 1 year minus a day since Mary’s beautiful statue was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital, we launched the Mary Seacole Trust at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Our aim is to use Mary’s legacy – compassion, creativity, dynamism, entrepreneurship and most of all, never giving up – to inspire people of all ages to achieve their best in whatever walk of life they choose. You can read about our first two programmes and a bit more about us on our new website. Plus a lovely 5 minute film made by one of our trustees, Jermaine Sterling. Do take a look – it’s great!

But when I was asked by our chair, Trevor Sterling (who left school at 16, yet is now a renowned lawyer and partner in a prestigious law firm plus one of the funniest, nicest and most effective people I have ever met) if I would be the new charity’s vice chair, I had to think hard. I felt the need to challenge myself about whether such an honour was deserved. I have had my share of difficult experiences, but I have not experienced racism. White people like me have to take care to avoid cultural misappropriation. We have to watch our privilege.

So I talked to my BAME friends, including some of the other trustees. And they said this. They reminded me that we are all part of the human race, brothers and sisters under the skin. And they welcomed my support because making sure everyone achieves their best is not just their fight. It is our fight. 

So I said yes. I promise them and all of you to use my talents, such as they are, plus my experience and connections to help inspire people of all ages to achieve their best, based on merit, passion and hard work. Not what school they went to, who their parents are or the colour of their skin. 

Just like Mary Seacole. Mary had to fight many fights. She never gave up. And nor shall we.

To sign up as a member of the Mary Seacole Trust, or just to learn more about us, click here. 

Thank you. 

 

There is no such thing as a “suicide bomber”

​On Friday, mental health hero Professor Louis Appleby gave voice to the disquiet many of us have been feeling about the use of the term “suicide” in relation to the Manchester bombing. Overnight, we have learned of more atrocities around London Bridge and Vauxhall. Our hearts go out to all who are affected.

Now let us face facts. Taking one’s own life as a way of killing others is NOT suicide. It is multiple indiscriminate murder, even if those who do it have been callously brainwashed by others who view the lives of fellow humans as infinitely expendable.

After I had endorsed Louis’s comments via Twitter, I was challenged by Karen Machin @kmachin to use my influence to do better. I joked that she might be overestimating my potential impact, but I also remembered something.

When I retired from the NHS, I made a promise to others but mainly myself to use the connections I had developed to campaign for improvements for those needing help with their mental health. I do this as an ex-nurse and NHS leader but also someone with my own experiences of mental illness and occasional suicidal thoughts and feelings.

This time last year was not good for me. But not as bad as 2013, the year before I retired, during which I spent months ignoring my increasingly negative thoughts, growing ever more irrational and obsessed with unimportant details before finally breaking down, unable to speak or look other people in the eye because I was consumed by shame and self-hatred. I had no wish to remain alive. On the day things finally fell apart, I came close to crashing my car on purpose, but could not face hurting others because I knew it was only me who was a worthless piece of shit. I was luckily surrounded by love and exceptional care. And slowly, I came through.

Last year was more of a blip than a breakdown. A few things conspired to make me wobble. But at long last I have learned to spot my warning signs before it is too late – disturbed sleep, unexpected tears, irrational thoughts, heightened anxiety, self loathing and suicidal feelings. Fleeting, but suicidal nonetheless. Asking for help will always be difficult for me, because when I am not at my best, I feel that that my place is to help others and to need help myself is self-indulgent and selfish. But when I did, again I got unconditional love and support. A week or so later and I was on the mend. Yes, I remain on medication, but it is about maintenance. Others take statins, I take SSRIs. I also ride my bike, meditate, write, grow and make things, and spend time helping others. When I get the proportions right, this is a therapeutic mix.

One of the ways I help others and myself is by volunteering in suicide prevention via Samaritans and Grassroots Suicide Prevention.

It is a privilege to be there for people experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings, or who are actively planning suicide. I know I have been dealt a more privileged hand than many, and I am in awe of the courage and fortitude people show in deciding either to keep going in the face of horrific challenges and experiences, or in reaching a decision that is the hardest anyone can make. Grassroots and Samaritans believe in self-determination. At Samaritans our entire purpose is about preventing suicide by giving people a kind and confidential place to share how they feel. We do not judge those who decide to take their own lives. We know that careful listening and compassion at such a time can help even those in the darkest places to find a reason for living after all. And at Grassroots, we believe that in reducing the stigma of suicide and helping friends, neighbours and work colleagues to develop understanding and skills, we can help save more lives. Our training is based on the best international evidence. It works.

Suicide can be an impulsive act by someone not in their right mind. It can also be carefully thought out and planned. Suicide casts a long shadow, not just on those nearest and dearest, but also on professional carers and volunteers who may have done all they can to keep the person alive. Samaritans and Cruse have recently started support groups for people bereaved by suicide. This work is much needed; although suicide has not been a crime since the 1960s, there is sadly still fear and stigma associated with such a death. It can be the most difficult of losses.

So given the complex sadness and what-ifs that accompany a death by suicide, and the guilt and shame felt by people like me who occasionally find ourselves thinking about it, may I ask for your help please? If you hear someone describing a mass murderer as a “suicide bomber” in future, please show them this. And please ask them to choose their words more carefully and reserve the suicide word for those times when it befits the anguish of the person considering it.

For confidential help 24/7 365 days a year call Samaritans on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

For information on suicide prevention training, take a look at Grassroots Suicide Prevention

To download the free Stay Alive suicide prevention app, go here.

Take care. And thank you.

Improving the NHS: with added tribute to Dr Kate Granger

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Last week I was introduced by Dr Kathy McLean, Medical Director at NHS Improvement to 180 people comprising senior NHS clinicians, managers, directors, chief executives, patient representatives and members of staff at NHS Improvement, including most of their executive team. And I wondered how my homespun talk about improvement, leadership, the universe and everything would go down.

As it turned out, quite well.

The cartoon above was drawn by Inky Thinking. I don’t know how they do it, but they capture everything you say that you want people to remember.

Here is a word-based precis:

  1. If you forget that culture always trumps strategy, your efforts to improve services will be ineffective. I’ve been there and occasionally done it the right way. But more often the wrong way.
  2. You can’t help others to improve unless you are OK yourself. I have form on not remembering this.
  3. Leadership in public services has never been harder with our 24/7 media, including social media, and the anti-public sector rhetoric that appears in most newspapers.
  4. Plus we live in a post-fact world – see this article by Guardian Editor-In-Chief Katherine Viner. People believe things that are not true, and don’t believe things that are. I’ve had personal experience of this. And it is horrible.
  5. Being an NHS leader is very lonely. Never more so than when you are awake at 3am. People get in touch to congratulate you when something goes well. But when things go wrong, people you thought were friends seem to melt away.
  6. There is never enough time to think when you are running NHS services because of competing demands, often from those who are meant to be there to help you make improvements. But you must create time to think or you will make bad decisions.
  7. Filling senior vacancies in the NHS is getting harder. And we should worry about this. Because if we aren’t careful, the only ones who apply to be in the firing line will be those who don’t care what others think about them. And that would be very bad for all of us.
  8. We cannot separate leadership from mental health. In my opinion, people who experience mental illness from time to time can make exceptional leaders. It is only one thing about them. Plus, they develop skills through therapy that are invaluable – such as managing their own mood, listening really carefully, and not making assumptions about others.
  9. I have experienced depression off and on since the age of 15. A nurse said something damaging to me when I was 22 and vulnerable which I absorbed deep into my psyche. For the next 36 years I stigmatised myself, despite being an active campaigner against the stigma of mental illness. It was when I finally came out about my experiences that I was able to address my self-stigma. I have made many friends since then. But if only I had done it before, I could have been a better, more authentic leader.
  10. Mental illness messes with your head. It affects 1:4 of us. But 4:4 of us should care about it, not just on humanitarian and economic grounds, but because almost everyone can be affected. We are all on a spectrum of resilience, and if enough bad things happen to us, especially at a young age, most of us will experience post traumatic damage.
  11. When I appeared suddenly to get ill with an acute onset of depression in 2013, it was a culmination of things. My own susceptibility, but also workload, loneliness, weariness as I approached retirement, not taking care of myself, listening too hard to my own negative voices, and putting a lot of energy into maintaining a positive front. It wasn’t caused by internet trolls. But they didn’t help.
  12. So please don’t do what I did. Get to know yourself. Talk to yourself honestly about how you are. Talk to your loved ones. Take care. Be the best version of you, but make sure that it is you. And try always to see yourself as an improvement project – this makes it easier to accept criticism without it cutting you to your core. I’ve only learned this in the last few years, and it is a revelation!
  13. I am lucky. I have dear family and friends. And I got great care. I was able to go back to a job that I loved, which was a major part of my recovery. I know it isn’t the same for everyone.
  14. Since the summer of 2014 when I finally hung up my chief executive boots, I’ve been helping others in various ways to be the best version of themselves. And I’ve written a book which I hope you will read when it is published later this year.

As I finish this blog, I think of someone who embodies improvement in everything she does. The talented, compassionate and extremely resourceful Dr Kate Granger. Kate is currently in a hospice in what are probably the final stages of a rare and awful form of cancer. But as well as sharing the intimacies of her progress through terminal illness via her wonderful talks and social media, Kate has also revolutionised the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world with her #HelloMyNameIs campaign. She has written several books, and completed amazing things on her bucket list. And not content with that, Kate and her husband Chris Pointon are urging people to make donations to the Yorkshire Cancer Centre, a small charity that helps improve the quality of life of people living with cancer. You can donate here.

Kate and Chris demonstrate that being a leader isn’t a job, it is an attitude of mind. That anyone can make a difference if they focus on something that matters, turn a great idea into an innovation and build support for it through honest endeavour. We can all learn about improvement from them.

May you go well, both of you.

25 July 2016 postscript: 

Chris has just posted on Twitter that his wonderful wife died yesterday peacefully in the arms of her family. 

I only met Kate once. I will never forget her. She had an extraordinary stillness and presence. I hope the knowledge of the difference she has made and will continue to make for many years to come will sustain Chris and all who loved her in the difficult times ahead. 

My heart goes out to all of you. May her lovely soul rest in peace.
 

 

 

 

What would Mary Seacole do?

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

Professor Elizabeth Anionwu and me

On difficult days, I ask myself what Mary Seacole would do.

Those who seek to denigrate her memory are more than mean – spirited. They not only question her nursing contribution in the Crimea –  for which she was honoured by the British Army, the Times newspaper, Her Majesty Queen Victoria and 80,000 members of the public who attended celebrations in her honour. They also question whether she actually was a nurse. They say that she wasn’t really black. And having campaigned as hard as they could to undermine the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, they now say that it is OK for there to be a statue to commemorate her, as long as it is small and not in a prominent position.

I will not stoop to naming these people nor to referencing the nastiness they have whipped up. Articles in The Independent and The Guardian have helped set the record straight. And today my dear friend Professor Elizabeth Anionwu CBE, Vice Chair of the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal, pictured with me above, will be on Woman’s Hour talking to Jenni Murray about the importance of Mary’s memory to all who believe in equality.

And today is the day that Mary’s beautiful statue, created by renowned sculptor Martin Jennings, will be unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Mary will proudly face the Houses of Parliament across the river. And she will be the first statue to a named black woman in the whole UK.

This is what will be written underneath:

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

Sir William Howard Russell, War Correspondent, the Times Newspaper, 1857

We need Mary’s legacy now more than ever. The referendum campaign has unleashed xenophobia and racism. The poster of people with dark skin queuing for refuge with that hateful slogan underneath said it all. Some hoped such ugly days were over. Many knew this was not so. Fear and hatred for “the other” lie behind words such as “I’m not a racist but….”.

The NHS is not immune to racism. Or sexism. I have nothing against able and honourable white men. But when the NHS workforce is 70% female and 20% BME, why does the top look so male and so white?  This excoriating report by Yvonne Coghill and Roger Kline tells us a lot. About unfairness and disadvantage and about how NHS staff who experience these things can lose hope. It was published earlier this month. It is in danger of sinking without trace unless we do something different now.

I have no personal experience of racism, although I have seen it in action. Sometimes I have done something about it. And sometimes I have not. For this I am ashamed.

I do have experience of anti-Semitism, of being teased for having a “funny” surname, and of sexism. I know about the stigma of mental illness. And I know that, had I stayed where I started, at a London teaching hospital, I would not have become an NHS chief executive. My face would not have fitted.

It was for these reasons that I, a white woman, felt I had something to contribute to the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site where Mary's statue will be unveiled tomorrow morning

Trevor Sterling, new charity chair, Leon Mann, ambassador and me last year at the site of the statue

And now, trustees of our new charity, the Mary Seacole Trust, chaired by the brilliant lawyer Trevor Sterling, will be calling on Mary’s legacy to inspire those at risk of disadvantage. In schools, universities, communities and workplaces including the NHS. We will encourage people to work hard and do their best. To be compassionate AND entrepreneurial. To aspire to great things. To speak up for what is right. And never to give up.

Despite not bring born in the UK, Mary Seacole never gave up playing her part in helping those from a country she loved. Throughout her life she remained proud of her dark skin and her heritage.

I urge anyone in despair or need of inspiration to visit Mary’s statue. It depicts her coat furling around her as she strides defiantly into the wind to meet her destiny.

These are very difficult times. Let us join Mary Seacole. And let us never give up.

An earlier version of this article was published in the Health Service Journal. I have updated it for my blog and to increase access beyond the NHS. I will update it again with photographs of the statue.

 

 

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 🙂

 

The ones who matter

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It was nice that 12,500 people read my two recent blogs on the mental health angle of a current The Archers storyline.

But it wasn’t all good. I am a sucker for positive reinforcement, including WordPress stats. And I doubt I will ever again get 4,500 views in a single day.

And that’s the thing about maintaining one’s mental well-being if you are one of the 1:4 people like me for whom it is sometimes a struggle. I’ve been a bit down since those two blogs. I’ve questioned whether I’ve got anything interesting left to say. And yet I know I need to write about stuff to work out what I think.

Here’s what I’m thinking about today.

Someone said to me recently, with real sincerity, that the tide is turning on the stigma of mental illness. They said they thought that the battle had been won because people like me can stand up and say that we sometimes need help from mental health services. And not be judged.

But I thought hmm.

Because it doesn’t feel that way. Not to me, nor the friends I’ve made through social media and in real life. Especially not those who haven’t been as fortunate as me and are forced to grind out an existence on state benefits juggled with occasional paid work. The positives from such work are overshadowed by arcane, dis-empowering rules of which it is almost impossible not to fall foul. Nor does it feel that way to those who live in fear of losing their homes, or who haven’t even got a place to call home. Current government policy feels deeply discriminatory and the exact opposite of therapeutic for those already experiencing the potentially crippling challenges of mental illness.

It doesn’t feel that the stigma has gone away for the people who can’t get the right mental health treatment, or even any treatment at all. As a wise person recently said, imagine telling the parents of a child with early stage cancer that they have to wait until things seriously deteriorate before they can see a specialist. And even then, the care will be rationed and probably not what is recommended. That’s the reality in many parts of the UK, for children and adults too.

I heard a senior commissioner say the other day that they would love to invest more in mental health, but the evidence just isn’t strong enough (my italics). What planet are they living on?? True, spending on mental health research is woeful. But there is nonetheless masses of really good evidence about what works. And it starts with intervening early via properly funded local services delivered by highly trained, well-supported staff.

What also doesn’t help reduce stigma is the almost constant service redesign and reconfiguration. Indeed, the billion pounds of “new” money announced by Jeremy Hunt after the Mental Health Taskforce Report was published is not, in fact, new at all. It has to be achieved through efficiency savings. I know from experience that such initiatives rarely achieve all that is promised. And they almost never take account of the collateral damage to staff well-being.

Not to mention competitive tendering, which mental health services face at disproportionately greater levels than other parts of the NHS. Plus the drip-drip reduction in mental health funding and the erosion of national data collection so that it takes the skills of investigative journalists to uncover the ongoing cuts that have been made over the past 6 years despite government rhetoric about parity of esteem for mental health.

And what adds further to the stigma is that the media rarely mention mental illness or mental health services except when something appears to have gone wrong. Where are the motivational stories like the ones about people who have “beaten” cancer? Even when no mistakes have been made, the finger of blame gets pointed. Imagine how this feels to staff who work in these services, being pilloried for doing a job that most people couldn’t begin to contemplate because they don’t have the skills, patience, courage and compassion needed to work in mental health. They should be lauded and supported, not ignored and criticised.

So no, the stigma of mental illness is not a thing of the past. It is ugly, cruel, destructive and ever-present. Like racism, sexism and homophobia, it will never truly go away. We have to be vigilant. And we have to keep working at it.

Despite the job I once did, it took me until I was 58 to get over my own self stigma and admit that I experienced clinical depression from time to time. Coming out about it was the hardest but also one of the best decisions I ever made. I take my hat off to others who have got to that point sooner than me. You are braver than anyone who hasn’t been there will ever know. Showing the world that people who experience mental illness have hopes and ideas and other wonderful human assets to share is the best way there is to make others want to join us and change the way things are.

Writing about mental health and The Archers was fun. Writing this piece was harder but far more satisfying. I will try not to care how many people read it.

Because the ones who do are the ones who matter.

 

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. 😎😎😎