stigma

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.

 

Please do this and please don’t say that

Since coming out about my on-off relationship with depression, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me stuff and told me things. Some have been extremely helpful, some not so much.

Here’s my handy guide on what not to say to someone like me:

  1. Please don’t ask “So why do you think you get depressed?” If I knew that, I’d fix it. I’m trying to find out, but it’s a work in progress.
  2. Please don’t say “Have you thought about exercise?” You bet I have. And now I’m in recovery, I’d love you to come for a walk or bike ride with me. And see if you can keep up.
  3. Please don’t say things like “When I retire, I’m worried I might get depression like you did. How can I avoid it?” I don’t know! What I do know is that depression isn’t caused by one thing. If you’ve got to this stage in life without experiencing it, chances are you never will. But I can’t make any promises.
  4. Please don’t say “When I get depressed, I always…. (insert favourite pastime/exercise/indulgence.)” Thanks for the information, but you haven’t had depression. Or you wouldn’t say that.
  5. Please don’t say ” Do you think talking/writing about your depression might make it worse/bring it on?” No I don’t. Sure, exploring this stuff is painful. But psychological wounds are like physical ones. They won’t heal if you simply cover them up. They will fester. To heal properly, wounds need sunlight and oxygen. Being open is the antidote to the nasty old stigma which makes people who don’t experience mental illness feel embarrassed about it and people like me who do feel ashamed.
  6. Please don’t say “I never thought of you as the sort of person to get depression. I always thought you were so strong.” Yes. And that’s part of the problem. If you read Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, it will help to invert your thinking about depression. As it did mine.
  7. If I’m not on medication, please don’t tell me that I should be taking it. If I am, please don’t pass judgement, or ask if I have thought about talking therapies instead. And please don’t call antidepressants “happy pills”. People with physical illnesses such as cancer or heart disease don’t need well-intentioned, uninformed amateurs to opine on their treatment. People with mental illnesses are the same. It is neither good nor bad to take medication. It is just sometimes an essential part of getting better or staying well.
  8. Please don’t say “You seem too jolly/optimistic to get depression.” Again, do read Tim Cantopher. Depression is rarely a permanent state. For me, the stark contrast between how I feel when depressed and my state when well is close to unbearable.

Depression isn’t the same thing as sadness. In my case, it is a combination of self-loathing and emptiness. But we are all different. See my letter to you for further info. It includes the details of the book I mentioned above.

Having listed some Please Don’ts, here is a precis of what I have found, through experience, really helps.

Do please:

  1. Hold my hand when I need it
  2. Be patient
  3. Listen carefully and don’t overreact
  4. Resist judging
  5. Encourage me to seek professional help if I seem to be going round in circles
  6. Tell me you won’t allow me to let this thing define me
  7. Avoid defining me by it yourself
  8. At the same time, allow me to incorporate it into my life.

Like anyone who experiences any form of mental illness, be it lifelong or more fleeting, I am so much more than it. But it is also part of me. I am learning to accept this, as I hope you can too. Not for me, but for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness from time to time. Because this is the only way we will truly eradicate the stigma that so besets us.

Thank you for your kindness in reading this. It means a lot.

Sussex will never be the same. But we stand together

Saturday 22 August 2015, lunchtime. I’m looking forward to football – Brighton and Hove Albion v Blackburn Rovers. We got back from holiday last night. Steve has gone to Storrington via the A27 near Shoreham Airport to collect William from his cattery. They should have been home an hour ago. I notice via Twitter that there has been an incident at the air show affecting the A27. Slight anxiety till husband and cat return.

At 2.15 I set off on my bike to the Amex. The air is warm and still, the roads empty. At the stadium, we learn that kick – off will be delayed as the A27 at Lancing is shut both ways. Several thousand spectators fail to arrive. We win, not especially well. People keep checking their phones for news.The atmosphere is muted. Son, 28, hugs me spontaneously.

It is only the next day, as estimates of the number who may have been killed keep rising that the enormity of that Saturday moment really begins to sink in.

As I go about my Sunday, I think of those anxiously awaiting news. The names of two 23 year olds are released as the first to have lost their lives.They were semi-pro footballers at Worthing United, en route to a match in Loxwood. One was an Albion employee, both were Albion fans. Tony Bloom, our chairman, loses his composure as he pays tribute to two lovely boys. There will be many mothers like me feeling guilty for being thankful we have no-one missing.

Monday 24 August. On the Today programme, John Humphrys allows his exasperation at the dissembling of an aviation authority representative to get the better of him. He refers to the German Wings incident and talks of “Mad people getting into the cockpit”. A gratuitous, stigmatising link. I recall an appearance myself on Today earlier this year to challenge the German Wings coverage.

A planned day out with a friend to celebrate our 60th birthdays starts with an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. The poignancy of the loss of young lives catches me unawares.

Much later on my way home, I check the BBC website. There are now six named dead or missing, at least five more to come. The A27 will remain closed all week. The West Sussex Coroner calls for patience; the scene of devastation is beyond comprehension, and identifying the bodies is painstaking work.

Tuesday 25 August. The national media has moved on. But Radio Sussex and our local paper The Argus continue to dedicate much space to the incident. The reporting is beautiful in its sensitivity and as far from sensationalist as you could hope. Careful attention is paid to those already known to be lost, those waiting for news, the ones involved in the clear up and local people who are just shocked and stunned. MP Tim Loughton does what leaders should in times of crisis and is present, calm and thoughtful in his comments. The police, ambulance, fire and rescue teams and volunteer helpers are heroic. The NHS is doing what it does best, saving lives, or trying to. News of the pilot isn’t good but people pray for him. There is no finger pointing. But there are understandable queries about whether vintage planes should be used in air displays over built up areas. The Shoreham Airshow as we know it may be no more.

We all have mental health. Events such as these don’t cause mental illness. But they affect our wellbeing in many ways. It’s wonderful to see Sussex Partnership and the rest of the NHS offering advice and help to those who need it.

And I’m pleased to see my friend Daniel from Brighton, Hove and District Samaritans speaking about voluntary support, including Samaritan volunteers who have been making themselves available to talk to distressed folk paying tribute to the dead. I can think of no-one better placed in such circumstances.

Thursday 29 August. This morning, two days after posting the original version of this blog, I get a call from Radio Sussex. They are doing a programme on Saturday lunchtime live from Shoreham Footbridge to pay tribute to all those who have died, been hurt, have helped in the clear-up or been otherwise affected in any way. Presenter Neil Pringle has suggested they ask me to appear in the programme. I couldn’t be more honoured. I will do my best to say things that will help people.

These are troubling times. Sussex has been dealt a body blow. How can we all help one another? By standing together, being patient, thankful, hopeful, and relentlessly kind.

 

Nobody said it was easy…

My last blog was about the launch of the Time to Change project, working alongside two volunteer mental health trusts to tackle the stigma within mental health services. It got lots of positive comments. And a few negative ones.

In the interests of improvement, I thought I’d share the latter, see what I can learn from them and also offer my response.

The comments fall into three broad categories.

1.People who do bad things need calling out. That is the essence of accountability. This project ducks the issue.

I understand what you mean. And I agree. If someone has done something wrong, they should account for their actions. That is what any fair and just system is based on.

But…We are talking about attitudes. And it isn’t possible to change these by telling people they are wrong. And shaming or even punishing them. It doesn’t work. It can actually entrench those attitudes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa recognised this. It sought to use compassion and forgiveness to build bridges between groups who had done terrible things to each other. Archbishop Tutu used the learning from this work to build his worldwide Tutu Foundation, which teaches mediation to troubled nations and groups. Underpinning it all is his belief that people are made for goodness.

Time to Change has worked on this basis since 2007. They use facts and compassion to help change attitudes. They have had significant, measurable success. This project is no different. Facing up to what is wrong is not ducking the issue. It is honest and truthful and has taken huge courage. Changing things requires sensitivity and compassion. And that’s how we will be working.

2.Teaching staff about mindfulness and compassion is bollocks. It doesn’t work. There is a “happiness industry” out there ripping public services off and laughing all the way to the bank.

I use mindfulness myself, and am proud that my ex-colleagues at Sussex Partnership have been offering mindfulness-based CBT and mindfulness meditation to patients and staff on an increasing basis for the past 5 years. It does work. There is a large evidence base.

But I agree it is not a panacea. Nor does it work for everyone. Mindfulness doesn’t fix poverty, a housing problem or unkind treatment from someone else. What it does is enable you to control your emotional response to such challenges and not allow them to define you.

Our project will use a range of methods to help staff bring their whole, most compassionate selves to work. It won’t duck from identifying the cultural, organisational and external factors which affect the delivery of compassionate care. And this won’t be easy. But we are determined not to paper over problems.

3.Someone like you (me) who has had an occasional bout of depression has no idea about the stigma of serious mental illness. Thinking you are helping by disclosing your own experiences is self indulgent shit.

You have touched one of my rawest nerves. I shared your view for many years, which was why I kept my depression to myself. Added to that, I truly didn’t believe what I experienced from time to time was depression. I thought of it more as my own moral weakness and laziness. Words like self-indulgent were designed to perfectly describe me.

But now I’ve had some really effective therapy. I’ve learned that I’m not a bad person. And that my response to distress and dissonance is to turn in on myself with self-hatred that is greater than anyone else can ever feel towards me. I become my own worst enemy. This is a major aspect of my depression.

It is true that I don’t have the longterm effects of an illness such as schizophrenia to contend with. But just because I’ve managed to muddle through my life and have achieved a few things despite not infrequent bouts of depression doesn’t mean it has been easy. Judging me for not being more disabled is pretty sick, when you think about it.

So I’m going to continue being open about what I do to try and stay well, which I am at the moment, and about what it’s like when I’m not. And I’m going to listen to the thousands of people who have told me that coming out has helped them be more open. Rather than the handful who judge me as self-serving.

At least, that’s what I will try to do.

I’m looking forward to sharing these thoughts with members of the project working group and to hearing their own experiences and challenges. I’ll keep you posted on how we are doing.

And my final thoughts? Nobody said this project was going to be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is.

If I ruled the world…

In a previous life, I ran a mental health trust for 13 years. It was really hard, but it brought some influence to bear on something that matters very much, i.e. the experiences of 1:4 people, who, like me, are sometimes mentally ill.

In 2010, as Chair of the Mental Health Network, I shared a platform with Health Minister Paul Burstow, Paul Jenkins, then of Rethink, Sarah Brennan of Young Minds and others at the launch of the coalition government’s mental health strategy No Health Without Mental Health. In 2013, I met Norman Lamb (who took over the ministerial role in 2012) and a few other senior colleagues to discuss why it was that the strategy hadn’t completely worked, in our opinion. The shocking evidence of widespread disinvestment in mental health services was by then becoming clearer, rigorously uncovered by investigative journalists Shaun Lintern (HSJ), Andy McNicholl (Community Care) and Michael Buchanan (BBC). Who are heroes in my opinion.

In times of plenty, mental health services have received at least a small share of extra resources available. Professor Louis Appleby’s excellent National Service Framework was delivered from 1999 – 2009 through increased investment in crisis services, early intervention and assertive outreach teams. And it was strictly monitored. Commissioners and/or trusts who thought they knew better than the best evidence of what underpinned compassionate, effective care for people with serious mental illness were found out and given no option but to improve. The architecture that did this monitoring has since been dismantled. We are left with regulation, inspection, adverse incident reporting and stories in the media.

The pressure by local commissioners on providers to swallow the current disinvestment medicine is considerable. Mental health leaders who make a fuss are viewed as lacking loyalty to their local health system. Were the same cuts made to cancer or heart services,  there would be national uproar.

This tells us something, which is that stigma towards the mentally ill is alive and kicking within the NHS.

A true story: the other day, I mentioned the wonderful Alison Millar’s Kids in Crisis  programme to someone senior from NHS England. I could tell they were irritated to be reminded that very sick children are currently languishing in police cells or being shipped hundreds of miles around the country while desperate clinicians spend hours trying to find a bed. This person actually said that parents are prepared to travel all over the world looking for the best treatment for conditions such as cancer. So why should CAMHS be different? When I reminded them that this wasn’t about highly specialist care, just access to care anywhere, they blamed the failure on local services and moved on to share their insights with someone else.

So we have denial about the impact of disinvestment, as well stigma. And I realise that in my new freelance world, I have a different sort of influence.

Thanks to Paul Jenkins, now CE of the Tavistock and Portman Trust, for his blog this week on the paucity of investment in mental health research. Another example of how stigma is flourishing towards those least able to argue for resources. And to Andy McNicholl for his piece on the bed crisis in adult mental health services, mainly caused because people are being hospitalised when other services have closed, or there is nowhere safe for them to go when they are ready for discharge.

Regarding the NHS Five Year Forward View (5YFV) here’s my 6-point plan for making mental health more mainstream. With measurements. Because if you don’t measure, you can’t manage.

1. Suicide prevention

Make suicide prevention the business of every citizen of the UK. Stop blaming mental health trusts and their staff for failing to keep people alive. The responsibility is much broader than that. Locate suicide reduction planning with Health and Wellbeing Boards. Make it their number one priority, with proper support as well as sanctions for lack of progress.

2. Mental health within the NHS

Expect every provider and commissioner to make the care of people who happen to experience mental illness their explicit business. Start with primary care. Require every NHS employee, including reception staff and everyone who works in a commissioning organisation, to do a minimum 1/2 day training, with an annual update, delivered by experts by experience. Report on compliance via the annual NHS staff survey.

3. Integration

Require local systems to produce integrated commissioning plans for all primary and secondary services. Particularly crisis care; dementia; all major physical conditions such as heart disease, strokes, obesity, diabetes and cancer; neurological conditions such as MS and MND; and musculo-skeketal conditions including chronic pain. Draw on the RAID model for measurement. Allow organisational form to flower according to local need. But also require investment in integrated services through an annual reduction in organisational overheads, and increased investment in the third sector.

4. Public health

Reduce premature death rates in people with serious mental illnesses of up to 25 years by making mental health promotion core business for primary care and secondary health providers in the statutory and non-statutory sectors. Target supportive, evidence based obesity reduction, smoking cessation, substance misuse harm reduction and exercise programmes for people with diagnoses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTSD and personality disorder. Set ambitious targets over the next 25 years and monitor hard against them to help turn around the life chances of some of the most marginalised people in society.

5. Making the business case

It is up to the NHS to articulate and prove the business case for a change of approach in welfare for people with long term conditions such as serious mental illnesses. Commission the best brains eg Professor Martin Knapp at LSE to put the evidence together. Which is that it is considerably more costly as well as more cruel to condemn people who experience mental illness to poor, insecure housing and limited, insecure income, and for them to appear frequently and often pointlessly within criminal justice services.

But these costs do not occur in one place. Creating exciting opportunities for engagement and volunteering such as The Dragon Cafe can help people move from being recipients to full participants. Placing employment specialists within mental health teams and incentivising pathways into work are also proven to be highly successful. The alternative, i.e. penalising those in need of help, is counter-productive. It forces people to have to make themselves appear less able, makes them reticent about coming off benefits for fear of never getting them back should they need them in the future, as well as being extremely detrimental to their long-term well-being.

6. Research and improvement

Shine a light on why so little is spent on mental health research, given the financial and life chance costs of mental illness. Do something serious ang longlasting to reverse this. And then measure the impact longditudinally. No-one says we’re spending too much on cancer research, do they? Use that as our benchmark.

AND listen to the eminent and brilliant Professor Don Berwick, who makes the point that inspection never improved any health system. We need to invest in improvement science, architecture and skills for the whole NHS, of which mental health is an intrinsic, integrated part. Calling something NHS Improvement doesn’t necessarily make it an improvement body, by the way. But it is a good start.

 

I’ve shared these thoughts with the fabulous Paul Farmer, CE of Mind, who is leading one of three national task forces set up to help deliver the NHS England 5YFV. The other two are on cancer and maternity care. I know he wants to do the best he can. But he needs your help.

If you are part of the mental health family, and I would argue that every human being should be, please join in. Let’s seriously increase our ambition for those of us who experience mental illness, and focus hard on a small number of really important things that will really change lives. And then let’s concentrate and not squabble amongst ourselves as we set about achieving them.

That’s how winning teams win, against all the odds.

Why do you blog?

I’ve been collecting questions and comments about blogging recently. Here are some of them, with my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

1. Why do you blog?

This is a bit like asking why do you breathe. Because I have to. I’ve always used writing to explore ideas and work out what I think. And I’ve always shared it. Blogging is just the latest way to do this. There will no doubt be others.

2. I don’t know how you find the time

Writing a blog doesn’t take as long as you might think. Also, I no longer have a full time job – although I found it helpful to write a weekly blog even when I did. Nowadays, there are other things I don’t do as much of as perhaps I should. Such as finishing the book I am writing…

3. There are so many blogs. I don’t have time to read most of them

No one expects you to. There are also many millions of books, articles and other forms of writing. Some of us have voracious appetites for reading. Others are more choosy. Both are OK, as long as you don’t only read things you know in advance you will agree with. Reading is meant to broaden the mind. And make you think.

4. How do you know if people read your stuff?

This is why blogging is so great. Back in the day of articles appearing in print only, you might know how many people had bought the newspaper or journal. But you’d no way of knowing who had read your piece. With online blogs and articles, at least we now know exactly how many have opened it, even how long they have lingered there. Although whether they actually read it remains their private business!

5. What if no-one reads your blog?

That’s OK. I have had blogs that were looked at by 1,000 people within a few hours, and others which struggled to reach 200 people over a whole week. It can be hard to work out which will be which in advance. It helps to consider whether the title is appealing, and also whether I am saying something original or even interesting; sometimes only clear with hindsight! The ones that seem most popular tend to be when I write about something that other people might have wanted to say, but were too scared to. Or where I talk about my personal experiences of difficult stuff, and what I have learned.

6. I’d like to write an opinion piece but I’d hate to get some of the horrible feedback I’ve seen you getting

This is interesting. At first, the online mauling of people like me who express their views can be distressing. There is something about the ability to be anonymous or apparently unaccountable that makes some people behave in destructive, even vicious ways. I heard Stephen Fry on Desert Island Discs say that he now tweets but never reads the tweets of others.  That is really sad. I’m similar to him in two respects: I experience depression from time to time. At those times, there is nothing anyone can say about me that is bad as how I view myself. And when I am well, I have in the past found it almost unbearable when people have criticised me. But…If you ignore negative feedback, you miss learning something.  I’m slowly improving at rolling with the punches, and just tuning out the most obviously horrible responses. Increasingly I see myself as an incomplete project that I need as much help with as possible. This makes everything about being alive so much easier.

Also, my wise friend @AlexYLDiabetes tells me that the 80:20 rule should apply, i.e. at least 20% of people should actively object to what you are saying. If they don’t,  you are being bland or populist. Thanks Alex,  as you know that has been a stunningly helpful insight. Particularly as my next blog after this one might be quite contentious…

7. I’ve been told I should blog but I’m anxious about getting started.

No-one should tell you what you should do. It is your decision. But given that you might want to try blogging, I will just say this. All new things are scary. I have had palpitations just before pressing the Publish button on quite a few occasions. This was one and this was another. It is when you stick your head above the parapet and say what people might not be expecting that you will get the most reaction. I like it when I manage to articulate what others have been thinking but haven’t got round to saying yet. And I like it even more if I can help people to formulate their ideas. If you think you might like these things too, please do have a go.

8. How does blogging make you feel?

Mainly happy. I honestly love it. As I do discussing ideas face-to-face, reading and hearing what others have to say, finding my thoughts shifting, and finding ways to explain what I think through the powers of story-telling.

And I love online conversations, especially on Twitter, which is made for ideas. As well as pictures of cats.

William in the garden

William in the garden