thanks

#DearDistressed

Letter for World Suicide Prevention Day 10th September 2016

Written for the #DearDistressed campaign launched today by Connecting for Health and republished here with their kind permission.

Dear Distressed

Thank you for opening this. You probably won’t feel up to reading much. So I need to grab your attention.

I want to tell you something. I have been where you are. I have felt that my life wasn’t worth living. Sometimes I knew why; mostly I didn’t. It has happened a number of times over many years. I have contemplated suicide. I even tried to take my life. But I’m very glad to be here because otherwise I couldn’t write to you now.

Making an admission about feeling suicidal isn’t easy. It can be shocking to face, for you and others. But also you don’t want people to overreact. You just want to be able to talk. And yet the chances are, you won’t have spoken to anyone about it. You may feel ashamed, as I once did. And still do, on a bad day.

Distress of this sort is overwhelming. Especially if you keep it bottled up. It blocks out the sun. Yes, it is different for each of us, because we are all different. But what makes us similar is the awfulness of it.  Lying awake for hour after endless hour, whether alone or next to someone you can’t talk to about the darkness of your thoughts. Everything seems pointless. You worry about stuff you used not to worry about. And the big things that were worrying you already are overwhelming. You feel loathsome, undeserving and useless.

So what might have helped me when I was where you are right now?

  1. It would have helped if I had managed to talk to a loved one or a friend. Eventually I have learned how to do this, although I still find it hard. I have been surprised by the kindness and understanding shown. Suicide is still taboo for some, but less than it was. And talking can really help.
  2. I called Samaritans a few times, from a phone box – there were no mobile phones in those days and I didn’t want to be overheard. They were amazing. They weren’t shocked and they listened really carefully. Nowadays calls to Samaritans are free so you don’t need credit. Ring 116 123 anytime, day or night, and talk to a trained volunteer.
  3. A hospital nurse once told me that I was a cowardly, selfish waste-of-space who had taken him away from looking after people who were really ill. I believed that nurse. And that was how I saw myself for many years. I wish I had instead remembered what a kind GP said when I apologised for bothering him, which was that I was worth the effort.
  4. I wish could have had a smart phone installed with the #StayAlive app by Grassroots Suicide Prevention for androids or iPhones. As well as useful information, advice and support, it encourages you to store reminders of how you feel on a good day, and keep special pictures and notes in one place. Now I look at mine most weeks. It makes me feel safe.

Learning to be kind to oneself can be a lifelong project. But if you aren’t kind to yourself, it is much harder to be kind to other people. For that reason, it is a generous and thoughtful thing to do. Rather than a self-centred indulgence, as I once believed.

Thank you for reading this. I hope it helped a bit. And if it didn’t, it doesn’t matter.

Because know this: you are not alone.

With loving kindness from

Lisa

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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.

Here’s to kindness

My friend Sara said yesterday that I seem to mention kindness a lot in my blogs. She’s right. I’ll explain what kindness means to me.

  1. Kindness is a gift we can each share with other humans, however rich or poor we are. It is remarkable that those with the least material wealth, such as people I know in Pakistan, are often the most generous to strangers as well as family and friends.
  2. Kindness means listening to another person as they seek meaning, understanding and eventually accommodation in bad things that have happened to them.
  3. I used to think kindness was about other people. Recently, I’ve learned that to be truly kind to others, one has to start by being kind to oneself. This is harder than it sounds. And it takes a lot of practice.
  4. Kindness includes going to an event, a leaving do, even a funeral, not because you necessarily want to, but because it would mean a great deal to someone else to have you there.
  5. Kindness is about reaching out to someone who is lonely, low or appears to be in need of help, and not minding if you are rebuffed.
  6. Kindness helps you to offer genuine congratulations to someone who has worked hard to achieve something admirable, even if you aren’t feeling great yourself. You may notice that their positive reaction will make you feel warmer and more contented.
  7. We saw great kindness in Sussex on Saturday, as thousands came to pay their respects to the 11 who died in the Shoreham air crash. By laying flowers on the footbridge, observing a minute’s silence, lighting a little candle or wearing a black armband, people showed love to the bereaved and to one another. Their kindness has made a terrible time feel slightly less terrible.
  8. I’d like to think that in the UK, we might extend our kindness to the desperate people currently queuing at Calais, being smuggled in containers or risking their lives in tiny boats to cross the Mediterranean. The so-called “migrant” crisis is actually a humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing torture, war and starvation from troubled parts of the world are not “benefit – cheats”. They come from all walks of life. They are doing what any of us would do in similar circumstances. And Great Britain is not really “full-up.” Compared with them, we have great riches, including plenty of room and resources. And if helping makes things a little bit less comfortable for some of us for a while, then so what? If we were in a lifeboat, would we prevent another person from climbing in, just because we liked our own space, and leave them to drown? I hope we wouldn’t.
  9. In Buddhism, kindness is named explicitly. But as a matter of fact, kindness is the fundamental feature of all world religions, including humanism. The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, after which Samaritans are named, is about kindness. People who volunteer to help others enrich our world with their kindness.
  10. There are many people who write about kindness. The blog I’d most recommend is by @johnwalsh88. Here is a link to his latest. And here is the philosophy of the author.

In the 35 years that Sara and I have been friends, she has led by example and taught me a great deal about kindness. Everyone who knows her will understand what I mean. I will be forever grateful to her for this.

This will be my last blog for a while.  I’ve a book to finish and blogging, while good practice, is too easy a distraction.

I’ll be back. Meanwhile, let’s put pressure on our government. Let’s no longer feel ashamed of images of drowned people on the shores of seas close to our green and pleasant land.

Here’s to kindness. In the end, it is all that we have to give.

 

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.

 

Please don’t walk by on the other side

Suicide is one of the last taboos. So much so, that some internet service providers (ISPs) block websites that name it, for fear they are pro-suicide or that just mentioning the word may somehow encourage it. Even my little blogsite has been affected. Thanks to those who told me about two ISPs who were blocking me, and to BT who fixed it fast. And thumbs up to Virgin Media whose initial excuses were unimpressive, but who sorted it out eventually.

I was thinking of the taboo of suicide when I met some wonderful people in Devon recently. Some had been directly affected by suicide, such as the couple who lost their 18 year old son in 2011 and now campaign to raise awareness, and promote a young people’s helpline and two excellent training courses, Safe Talk and ASIST via suicide prevention charity Papyrus. Some were like me and experience suicidal thoughts from time to time. And some were just good, kind people who help others in their chosen careers or as volunteers. They are all part of the South West Suicide Prevention Collaborative.

I shared some of my personal story with them and why I believe now more than ever that preventing suicide is everyone’s business. It is definitely not just the responsibility of staff who work in mental services, who can get blamed for not keeping someone alive, rather than praised for all the times that they have. Staff need support at such times because they feel devastated at the loss of a patient who they care about deeply. How can we expect them to be compassionate to others if we treat them with so little compassion?

Actually, this applies to all of us. Telling people who work in public services to be more compassionate while treating them without dignity, respect or kindness is the ultimate irony. And yet it is played out in many places every day. Including much of the media.

I said something at the event that isn’t currently fashionable. I don’t think it is is possible to prevent every death by suicide. But I do think that we can do very much more IF we make suicide prevention the business of families, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, all public services rather than just the obvious ones, the media, shops, cafes, bars, the voluntary sector, faith groups, social groups, sports clubs…everyone. And if we talk about it with more understanding and less rush to judgement, I believe we will gradually lose the taboo. But we still have far to go.

It isn’t just those of us who experience mental illness who think about killing ourselves. Death of a loved one, job loss, other sorts of loss, crippling debt, loneliness, isolation or an overwhelming sense of hopelessness about the future can all be causes. One of the people at the Devon conference spoke bravely about the corrosive impact of the downturn and benefit changes on those who are least well-off.

Only those who have been directly touched by suicide can possibly know just how raw and awful it feels. It is a grief like no other, because of the guilt and the shame that is still associated with it. I don’t get cross about those who still describe the act as “committing” suicide. They usually mean no harm. Suicide hasn’t been a crime since 1961, but we have some way to go to incorporate that change into our values, attitudes, behaviours and language.

I have spent a lot of my life being ashamed of having occasional suicidal thoughts. I was lucky to learn about Samaritans via an article in Reader’s Digest when I was 15, the same year I saw my first psychiatrist. Their kind, wise volunteers have helped me several times in the past. I even became one myself for a while in my early 20s. But I was going through a rough patch and left without explaining why.

Now it’s payback time. I’m doing a big bike ride to raise money for Samaritans. Apart from a handful of staff at their HQ, all Samaritans are volunteers. Like the two lovely women who spoke at the Devon event about the work they are doing in local schools to raise awareness and offer support in the event of a death by suicide. I am donating my £500 fee from the event this week towards my fundraising target. Every penny I raise will go to keep local branches across the country running and to pay for the calls desperate people need to make. I have a big birthday in August. I’m asking my family and friends to make donations in lieu of presents. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate reaching 60.

We can all help one another. That man sitting on the station platform all alone? How long has he been there? Could you get over your reluctance to appear interfering and take a moment to ask him how he is? What about the elderly neighbour whose partner has recently died and who hasn’t been seen for a while? The young person at work who takes frequent days off? The friend who has been made redundant? Even the chief executive who has apparently made a mistake and is getting a mauling via social media. We can all do our bit to be kind, because that is all it might take to save a life.

And as we say at Grassroots, the wonderful suicide prevention charity in Sussex of which I am a trustee, here’s to life.

It could be you

I’ve had a mixed week. Yesterday I was in Leeds with people who mainly work in the local NHS, voluntary sector and local authorities and share an interest in helping vulnerable people. The conference was called #puttingPeoplefirst. It was enlightening and uplifting. I observed a groundswell of support for a different way of being at work, where people bring their whole and unique selves to bear on issues that matter, where failure is seen as an opportunity for learning rather than a weakness to be vilified,  and where treating patients/clients/service users with deep and real compassion is underpinned by working with love and compassion with one another.

Sounds a bit wooly and Buddhist for you? Then listen up. There is an increasing body of evidence that staff, from cleaners to chief executives, who are encouraged to operate with integrity and openness provide better, safer, kinder care. And this stuff isn’t new. Thank you @jackielynton for reminding us of our old friend Donabedian, who wrote wisely about improving quality before anyone else had thought of it, and said that it started with love.

If you don’t already follow @johnwalsh88 on Twitter or read his Yes To Life blog, and you like the sound of the conference, I’d encourage you to do so. I cannot thank John enough for inviting me. Or to the other organisers and speakers and to everyone there who was so honest and kind, including when they challenged one another.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest,  a senior public servant has selflessly stepped down from a job they openly loved despite having done absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong, and indeed a considerable amount right, in order to meet the political ends of people who appear simply to be throwing their weight about. And is being vilified online for it. What does that say to the thousands this person leads? Are they at similar expedient risk?

And in yet another part of the forest (I do like that saying, please tell me if I overuse it) senior people who should know better have been talking about “Never Events” as if by giving something a threatening – sounding name, it will stop it from happening. Actually, what it does is make staff very, very scared. And scared people are less creative and more likely to cover bad things up and to go off sick with stress. Or worse, come to work when they aren’t psychologically fit enough to care for themselves, never mind others.

Here’s a precis of what I said at the conference about authentic leadership:

  1. Bad things happen. Good leaders look after their people at such times. We live in a blame culture so this is very, very hard.
  2. The more rules and procedures you impose, the less creative and compassionate your people will become. Resisting the external demands to introduce even more is also very hard.
  3. We performance manage and inspect individual organisations at the expense of the good of the collective system, and the patients who struggle across the bits of the system. Moving to a more collective approach is a goal we could all agree on. But what about accountability, comes the cry. Or, who would we blame when things go wrong?
  4. There is a leader in all of us, whether we are a patient or family member, work on reception or sit at the board room table. Work hard, if needs be against the grain, to be defined by what you do best, not by what scares you most.
  5. Bring all of you to what you do. It took me far too long to learn that being all of me, including the bits I was less proud of, even ashamed of, made me a more authentic leader. Don’t try to hide your imperfections like I did. It’s an added burden when things are hard enough already.
  6. Many people are privately saying that everything now isn’t right, and some things intended to improve care are actually conspiring to make it less compassionate and safe. If you agree, find the courage to speak truth to power, which is what I am trying to do in this blog.

If you are in a leadership role and you see a colleague who is having a tough time, please don’t metaphorically cross to the other side of the road as though they had some toxic disease you might catch. And please don’t believe the shit you read online or even join in the anonymous bear – baiting that passes for acceptable comment these days. Instead, offer them your genuine support.

Because you never know, one day, it could be you.

 

Pride and Prejudice: post NHS Change Day ponderings

20.30 from Birmingham New Street to London Euston

20.10 Birmingham New Street to London Euston

You know how it is. There’s been a big event in your life – a special birthday or a wedding. Even NHS Change Day.

Now the party’s over. Everyone’s gone home, you’ve done the clearing up and read the thank you texts. You’ve got a hangover and sore feet from dancing till dawn. And you feel a bit flat. And you wonder what the point of all that fuss was.

I was feeling a bit like that the day after NHS Change Day. Maybe you were too? I’d given my all to various events in Birmingham. I was made extremely welcome by amazing people at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, at Birmingham Community Trust, at two children and young people’s mental health services and by patients, users, carers and staff at a West Midlands Health and Care Voices event in the evening.

It felt very special to share thoughts with patients and staff about things we all care very much about. Everyone seemed up for playing their part in changes that needed to happen. And our NHS Change Day: Time To Change campaign also seemed to hit the mark for many of the folk I came across.

A student nurse called Ellie did something on NHS Change Day that I didn’t have the courage to do until I was 58. In this blog, she beautifully describes what happened to her in front of 40 other people. In our Time to Change video, I ponder what may have made me take so long.

So that’s the pride part. I felt proud of my small contribution to NHS Change Day.

And the prejudice? It was to realise that some of the naysayers also had a point. While NHS Change Day 2015 has been amazing, people who have never heard of it continue to do stunning stuff. Like my friend Alison, a sister in a hospice, who with her colleagues care for dying people with such skill and compassion, I defy anyone not be able to learn something from how they work. Their hospice is one of the most joyous and hopeful places I have ever been invited to visit.

Or another friend, a clinical leader in an acute hospital, battling to get colleagues to see people with dementia for what they really are, human beings with wants and needs, rather than “inappropriate admissions” or “delayed discharges”. Or a third friend, a health visitor with a caseload so huge, and with clients with so many complex health and social problems, I cannot imagine how she is coping. But she is, as are so many others like her.

On Friday, my mother and I went to visit my auntie, her only sister, in her care home. Most of the staff who work there earn not much more than the minimum wage. As always, we were moved by the tenderness shown towards those living at the home. These staff truly love the frail and confused people whose care has been entrusted to them.

People like this don’t need a special day. What they do every day is extraordinary.

The NHS has to change. We cannot go on as we are. It’s an honour still to be involved, as a helper now rather than a leader, and to play a small part in bringing some of those changes about. NHS Change Day is an enabler. But it is no more than that.

Life, and death, continue 24/7 across all parts of the NHS and the services that support it.

If you work in the NHS, I hope you had a wonderful NHS Change Day. Thank you for what you do every day. I am most humbly grateful.