Talking values

Our values are the principles by which we make judgments about what is important in life. We often make the assumption that because we consider ourselves to be ‘reasonable’ people, share a professional title or have similar political views we must feel basically the same way about everything- but we don’t.

I was reminded of this at a recent conference when I was talking (as I sometimes get asked to) about the importance of and ways of helping people with common mental health problems in primary care. One member of the audience expressed concern that directing resources to people with anxiety and depression was being promoted at the expense of people diagnosed with ‘real’ mental illness and told us that a member of a team working in primary care had complained to him that there was ‘nothing wrong’ with people they were being asked to see. Another asked the panel how we might help people to stop asking for help with such problems and be more ‘resilient’ instead.

If you know me at all you will be able to imagine my reaction. I’m one of those people who get help with a ‘non-psychotic’ illness, although what has been of great benefit to me is so much harder to access these days, not easier. I was also thinking of the depressed colleagues of these professionals who would find it quite difficult to admit they needed help in the face of people around them expressing these values and beliefs. I objected passionately to the use of the word ‘resilience’, as I always do and probably alienated the young woman who asked the question rather than convinced her with my reply- she disappeared soon afterwards.

Some time ago there was a push towards ‘values based practice in mental health’. According to the Oxford psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fulford ‘Values-Based Practice’ is the theory and skills for effective health care decision making where different (and hence potentially conflicting) values are at play. Not only do health professionals hold many different values from patients and service users, they often differ considerably between each other- both between and within their respective groups. Discussion of all of our respective values is essential in those difficult areas such as the role of diagnosis, how to make care more patient-centred in the face of feeling ‘hit over the head with evidence’ (as someone said recently on twitter) and ethical dilemmas such as involuntary treatment. It is never so simple as something being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. All of these require time to reflect, on how and why we hold particular values of our own and why completely different ones may be so important to another person- and being able to admit honestly ‘maybe I don’t have all the answers’.

On social media there is little opportunity for reflection and arguments about value-laden topics can quickly become abusive. I do think its crucial to remember how many people with mental health problems look to social media for support, and abrupt questioning by mental health professionals of the personal values they hold on topics, such as being given a diagnosis and treatment that they believe has helped them, should be viewed as ethically unacceptable by their membership organisations- just as it would be in a direct clinical encounter. Values based practice is not simply about educating a person about what is wrong with their beliefs, but starting from where that person is at and trying to understand and make sense of their values and beliefs. Neither of you is ‘right’.

I should try to understand how and why fellow professionals come to hold the views they have about people with common mental health problems. Telling them they are wrong isn’t the right way to approach the problem- I know that- but sometimes, as with all of us, emotions get in the way.  And, as I’ve witnessed in so many meetings, we can assume we are all ‘on the same page’ (or hope we are to avoid conflict) but attempted execution of the task at hand soon reveals that we all do it entirely differently because we never wanted to have those difficult discussions about our basic values. The national roll out of services- such as implementing stepped care services for depression, and IAPT, were good examples of this- approached very differently depending on the values and beliefs of those leading the process in each place, and varying considerably in effectiveness. If we do have time and place for both self-refection and conversations with fellow professionals and service users we often find we have much more in common that we imagine. We can even agree to disagree on certain topics but still work together if there is mutual respect.

I have much more time now to talk and think about those powerful emotional responses, so influenced by my personal experience and those of friends who have felt unable to disclose their problems- and how these have affected my decision-making. Can we please have more opportunities in the training of mental health professionals not just to talk with people who reinforce our values- but those who might challenge them? and I don’t mean in the setting of a conference presentation where discussion is limited and things can easily degenerate into a shouting match too. A first step, according to Gwen Adshead,  might be to ‘respect’- to be mindful of another persons differing beliefs and values. To care about their experience as much as your own. The people I have disagreed with will have arrived at their position perhaps because of particular experiences they have had- just like I have. How and why?

All of practice- not only psychiatry, is influenced by values- but insufficient attention is paid to not only what is best for the patient from the viewpoint of the doctor or therapist, but what is right for that person, at that point in their life given the situation in which they find themselves. A professional cannot and should not assume that they always have the ‘right’ values or the correct answer.

The morals of Mindfulness

‘I don’t know what it is exactly- no one does- but even my GP tells me I’d benefit from it.’ (The Spectator 17/7/2017)

If you mention  you are seeking help for depression its odds-on somebody will mention mindfulness. It has reached a point where it feels like the thing those of us with anxiety and depression should be doing- the self-evidently right thing to do to get ourselves ‘mentally fit’ (whatever that means), booking in to do a few exercises in the mind gym.

Last week I tweeted:


The responses were interesting. Several who felt the same way. A couple suggesting I might approach it in a different way (I’m not going to say that they thought I was doing it wrong, because that would be unkind) and one entrepreneur trying to sell me his latest product.

I’ve been interested in meditation for many years. I don’t want this to sound facetious- but I fear it will- I have often thought that I would like to learn more about Buddhism- if it didn’t require so much effort. One of the most fascinating days of my life was spent in a Zen monastery in Japan. There have been times when I’ve meditated every day, and others when I’ve not. Since retirement I have started again- a little more regularly. I’ve found it helps me to feel more centred and calm. Wanting to learn more about Mindfulness, and having benefited somewhat from learning in the past some ways to cope with ruminations using techniques based on it, I started doing a recommended on-line course. My itinerant lifestyle precludes attending a weekly group, although I think this might have been much better.

At first it was helpful, but then my mood began to dip- related to uncertainties in the world- and the guided mindfulness exercises seemed to make things worse.  The ‘thought clouds’ burst and rained their contents down on me. Being asked to think about the painful things in my life with compassion for myself reduced me to tears, while having to think compassionately about others evoked anger. Haven’t I spent most of my life worrying about everyone else? Isn’t that the problem? I found myself saying. I can’t take this. It was no good. I had to stop.

I have heard of professionals telling clients that Mindfulness will put drug companies out of business. This kind of ridiculous promotion goes on in more muted forms across the media- some of it from researchers who should know better. What we can say is:

  • People respond differently to Mindfulness. We know there are potential adverse effects. Recalling traumatic events, increasing your level of anxiety or depression, depersonalization and even psychosis.
  • Mindfulness is suggested to people who are in the throes of depression (never mind full blown crisis)- but the evidence for its effectiveness during a current episode isn’t great– and there is none at all for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR- trademarked by Jon Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy has been shown to prevent recurrence when you’ve had 3 or more episodes and to be as effective as drugs for preventing relapse of depression (reported as ‘Mindfulness is as effective as drugs for treating depression.’) that’s what NICE recommends it for.

There are good reasons why it might not work when you are very depressed. You are preoccupied with anxiety, worries and ruminations. You start to focus on the very things that make you feel worse- your negative thoughts (even though you are only supposed to ‘be aware’- try telling me that when I’m not in control of my thoughts- I find it hard to even pay attention). And anyway you have to motivate yourself to get going.

The other moral objection to mindfulness comes from those who see the promotion of ‘McMindfulness’ as contrary to the values with which meditation is associated in Buddhism. It has become:

  • A personal path to ‘self-fulfillment’ removed from the intention of promoting compassion for others as well as yourself.


  • A corporate tool with for helping employees work more efficiently- with greater ‘resilience’ in toxic environments- thus putting the burden of responsibility back onto the individual to learn how to cope. I took pills for many years to do that- but it was my choice to- It wasn’t suggested to me by the boss.

Neither seem to be in harmony with the ethics and morals of Buddhist belief.

Indeed the moral imperative to ‘improve yourself’ by practicing mindfulness has something of the Protestant work ethic about it-  I’m only too familiar with that.

We must dust some of the celebrity stardust off Mindfulness and see it for what it is. Another useful tool that will help some but not others. Those of us attracted to meditation will find it helpful- but not when we are acutely depressed. I’m meditating again now- and finding it helpful. I know I have work to do on why ‘self-compassion’ is so hard but I can recognise that,  and I find reading Paul Gilbert’ books on compassion and mindfulness helpful. Others using self-help materials without support might find it much more distressing. Its one of the reasons we need to be alert as to how such tools as mindfulness are being disseminated in the community- and by whom.

We ought not to  promote a therapeutic milieu where people feel they ‘must’ learn to meditate or are told ‘it doesn’t work for you because you aren’t doing it right’ or ‘do this- its better than pills’.


The invisible patients

I had been essentially bed bound for 5 days, catheterized, cannulated and weak as a new born, in a ward for the elderly which I will call ‘ward A’, when the first senior nurse I had spied came into the 4 bedded room in which I lay. She chatted and giggled for ten minutes or so with the nursing assistants, who all stopped what they had been doing. I couldn’t hear much of what was said as I wasn’t wearing my hearing aid, but I picked up the gist that it wasn’t work related. Then, picking up her paperwork, and after a cursory glance through each of us patients as though we were invisible, the senior nurse departed again.

Five days earlier the highly professional doctors and nurses in the Emergency Department and medical assessment unit saved my life. I was diagnosed with sepsis secondary to pyelonephritis, given iv fluids and antibiotics and admitted initially to the medical assessment unit. There I was cared for by a pleasant final year nursing student, who told me her name and explained that I would be transferred forthwith to another ward for on-going care. Sadly, that was when things took a downhill turn.

If I hadn’t had anything to compare it with (see below), I might have thought that the care I received in ward A was the best on offer. On arrival I was left in a metal wheelchair in a corridor for 2 hours, with nowhere to rest my head other than a table-top and the body of my husband standing next to me. I’m 61 now, but I was by far the youngest in ward A, and I wondered if that played a part in some of the nurses apparent perception that I didn’t need any help- even though I was acutely ill, apparently rambling at times, and receiving intravenous antibiotics for the antibiotic resistant e-coli bouncing around my circulatory system that I had acquired in another hospital after a routine cystoscopy. Each morning I was expected by the night staff to get out of bed and sit in a chair with no pillow for 2 hours even though I was septicaemic and unable to support my own weight, while I waited for the day staff, a couple of whom chewed gum all the time, to ‘come and do the beds’. After 2 days I rebelled and crawled back onto the bare mattress but they didn’t come any sooner and left me until last. While lying there I heard the lady in the next bed who was barely conscious referred to as a ‘bed-blocker’. Then I refused to get up altogether at 6.30 am and my increasingly stained sheets were left unchanged for 3 days while the dressing on one of my bilateral cannulas, left in for almost a week, began to discolour and smell.

Neither the nurses nor the ever-changing doctors who visited each day introduced themselves and I couldn’t read their name badges as I didn’t have my glasses with me. I gradually learned which nurses to ask if I wanted something, and which ones would ignore me or get inpatient if my request didn’t fit with their all-important routine. Two of the staff nurses and one of the untrained nurses showed me considerable kindness- they told me that they had been hospital in-patients too and knew how important it was to be provided with information. Another left me for 2 hours in acute pain. Three days into treatment I was mistakenly given my medication orally rather than IV, but even this didn’t warrant a conversation with the lead nurse. When I made my first unsteady foray out of the room and down the corridor, fortunately without falling, I couldn’t resist a cynical snort when I saw a poster all about ward A’s dedication to providing high quality patient centered care.

Halfway through my stay, as I began to recover I was transferred to another ward, which I will call ‘B’. I was immediately greeted by the senior nurse who expressed horror at the sight of the tube hanging from my arm and insisted on its replacement. This was a surgical ward, and it was quieter, but only at first, and it soon filled up completely with post-operative patients and quite a few people as disabled as those I had shared a room with before. Everyone there introduced themselves with ‘Hello my name is’. I became visible again- as a person who was sick and needed care and assistance. Each day my bed was remade and I was able to get back into it if I needed, as I was still utterly exhausted. This was the NHS that I recognized but it felt as though I had been moved to a different hospital – not just to another floor. The mattress was even more comfortable (this was not a halo effect- my lower back no longer required a supporting pillow!). I was assured that beds were the same, yet it seemed to me that the people most at risk of pressure sores were sleeping on the oldest and most worn in the hospital. I also realised that the floor of ward B, unlike that in ward A, which had caked on dirt by the side of my bed, was actually clean.

I hate to criticize the NHS. I spent my life working in it, and I do believe it is the best health care system in the world- but I don’t think that means we should assume that all of its failings are related to lack of money and understaffing. I’ve worked in and researched health care long enough to know that isn’t true. From treating NHS employees with mental health problems who were bullied or excluded by managers and staff cliques, I know how much culture and management play a part in how effectively a unit operates, and how leadership style is crucial. That I only once saw a senior nurse in my time on ward A- and I and my fellow patients were invisible to her, was, I believe a contributing factor in why ward A was failing to provide the care it aspired to. In ward B the senior nurses were regularly seen around the unit and were approachable to patients and relatives.

After 2 weeks, I was discharged home where I am still slowly recovering. My bruises are disappearing and my desire to do something to change things has returned in force. I’m not good at being invisible- it’s a life long problem. I will be writing to the Chief Executive of the Hospital Trust … and also suggesting that if any of the Board are in doubt about the state of the beds in ward A they should be invited to spend a night (or two) in them.

Too much brain and not enough thought?

I sometimes have difficulty getting to sleep- but if you put me in a warm room, turn down the lights and start showing me pictures of brain scans I can guarantee that I will be snoring in five minutes- particularly if its after lunch.

You have probably guessed that I didn’t become a psychiatrist because I was fascinated by how the brain actually works. I was one of those medical students who wanted to spend time trying to understand what people I met were experiencing, and to find the right words or images to describe them. People with mental health problems are just like you and me (and I have them too), but with different ways of making sense of life, which can be sometimes be (for them and those around them) distressing, engrossing, terrifying, or engaging- to name but a few of the infinite possibilities. As a doctor I tried in turn to draw a person into a conversation, and then provide help and care.

What I am not, could not, and would never choose to have been was some kind of clinical neuroscientist. As you might expect from my problem in lectures, I’ve never found the intricacies of neuroimaging, neuropharmacology or neurophysiology, to name but a few of the specialties with that prefix, very exciting. Perhaps it’s because those subjects were so poorly taught to me. I get lost very quickly when I listen to someone who is talking with enormous enthusiasm, for example, about the genetics of mental illness, because sooner or later they go into minutiae that seem so far away from the ‘person’ that my brain moves to its economy setting then switches off completely.

However, young doctors who are beginning their training now in psychiatry are going to get a much better education than I got in neuroscience, and hopefully will be able to appreciate- and understand it-better than I did. This is indeed considered to be a golden time for neuroscience with many important breakthroughs. One of the recent winners of the Brain prize was a British psychiatrist. Perhaps its time has finally come and we will begin to see real benefits for patients in terms of more effective treatments.

Perhaps this will all happen, but possibly not as fast as some might believe.

When I started training in 1980, world psychiatry was moving out of what Leon Eisenberg called its ‘Brainless’ phase, dominated particularly in the USA by psychoanalytic theory, into the ‘Mindless’ era, where biological explanations took over to the point that the ‘medical’ for many became synonymous with the biomedical approach- although many of us remain firmly ‘bio-psychosocial’. Sometimes it feels as though the mental health world itself is split into those (especially psychiatrists) who are determined to show their psychosocial credentials and others who feel the need to defend against the onslaught of biomedicine. One of their favourite battlegrounds is on twitter, where blows are regularly exchanged.

I have certainly met some psychiatric colleagues who are remarkably single track in their biological view of mental illness. One or two of them were eminent neuroscientists whom I would dearly not wish to consult as a patient as it was clear they were yearning to get back to the lab where they could have a closer relationship with a sliced up brain than a living one. But I have come across many others over the years that were keenly determined to try and find new ways of helping people and demonstrated considerable empathy for their patients – even if they were highly skeptical about the role of psychotherapeutic interventions in achieving recovery.

However one of the major problems I have with neuroscience is that despite the amount of money that has been poured into researching the brain there is still so little to show that is relevant to patients. I started training more than 35 years ago, and we have been repeatedly told that the day when this investment will result in real clinical improvement is somewhere just over the horizon.

Psychiatrists cannot simply become ‘clinical neuroscientists’ or even- as some have suggested, neurologists for several reasons. Clinical neuroscience is not yet ready for clinical use. There is still a great deal to do before that point will be reached and the brain is an infinitely complex organ. Furthermore we mustn’t forget that the person who inhabits that brain is very complex too, and lives in an increasingly complex world. I have spent my life trying to help others achieve change, facilitate health care systems to change, and grow and change in my self. None of these were straightforward and I often failed.

Recently a group of eminent American psychiatrists concluded in the British Journal of Psychiatry:

‘our mental health research funding neglects immediate public health needs to focus on future discoveries, reflecting the drive for technological solutions for disorders that are unequally distributed and partly socially determined. Time frames for such payoffs have previously been consistently under- estimated’

Neuroscience may ultimately provide us with some of the answers, but I often feel when I’m in one of those lectures that I would really like to hear more how we can link up a little more across the multidisciplinary divide – and try to understand the interactions between the person, their environment and their brain. Because any real solution is always going to involve some thought about the first two of these. Instead there is so much research (and treatment) still going on in (sometimes idealogical ) silos.

Perhaps the new emphasis on neuroscience will attract more students into psychiatry, as it provides some tangible ‘medical’ credentials of a very high order (close as it is to neurology). But there is always the risk that too much of this will deter those, like me, who were fascinated by what people said, and wanted to be a doctor who listened, thought carefully about the options, discussed them, and then tried to help using every avenue available.

So I think we still have plenty to think about.


‘Mentally ill young woman killed herself hours after NHS staff called her a ‘f**king waste of space’

Sometimes a few words that catch your eye in a newspaper keep coming back to you. This  was from the Mirror a couple of weeks ago. I’m not going to say anything about the details of this particular case, but it set me thinking about the damage that is done to people in the name of care, often by the very people they are told to trust.

Many of you will say, quite rightly, that mental health care has been damaging people for years. I remember a patient of mine who had survived a leucotomy and the half-life he had lived in a long stay ward ever since. I’ve known many who have experienced awful after effects of ECT and medication and I bear responsibility for some of this myself- I was trying to help and sometimes I was successful- but not always. I have given tablets to people, which resulted in them feeling worse than they felt before they started them. But, just like we are now beginning to realize with psychological therapies too, treatments can do good but they can sometimes do harm. But how can verbal abuse by any definition of the word ever be justified as ‘treatment?’

A few days later I read the article about a well know TV presenter and his daughter who is recovering from anorexia. The original is here, (sadly behind a paywall) but it was picked up elsewhere too. He tells how she had felt suicidal after a regime, which

included an expensive regime of forced feeding, no exercise, accompanied lavatory visits to prevent them throwing up the food consumed, and monitored sleep to make sure they didn’t exercise while in bed”.

His daughter resisted and threatened to kill herself.

What I hated most about my job was treating a person against their will. It changed the nature of our relationship, sometimes (but not always) damaging it irreparably. The power inherent in my ability to engage with and forge a therapeutic relationship with a person was, for me, one of the most important and personally satisfying parts of my work. I wanted to work with a person, not against them.

In my years as a consultant I cared for quite a few young and older women with a diagnosis of anorexia and they told me what life was like in the units they had been treated in. Some experienced the style of care they were provided with as ‘punishment’, and for others I have no doubt that is what it was. What I’ve heard recently from people I’ve spoken to who went through some of those strict behavioural regimes (now strongly advised against by NICE) has confirmed that.

So what has this got to do with ‘damage’? Well I think we really do need to consider the long term harm that is inflicted every day when people are told they are ‘dependent’ because a service can only offer short term care, when what we know from attachment theory is that for a person who has never experienced secure, loving relationships, another rejection is the last thing they need. We need to consider how, when young people are sent to beds a very long way from home, this must seem like endless punishment for something they have done wrong but no-one will tell them what it is. We need to think about therapy that ‘does’ to people rather than ‘with’ them (in my experience that doesn’t work either). We need to think how it feels to be asking for help because you feel life is too awful to carry on with, but you are simply told to go away and have a warm bath. When the trauma you went through in childhood or later is simply confirmed by the way in which people treat you now. You are told ‘we have nothing for you,’ or ‘you pose too high a risk for us to manage’ or even ‘You are a f**king waste of space.’

Articles about designing our mental health services utilizing what we know from attachment theory – that the things that have happened to people early in life will affect how they behave and ‘attach’ in adult relationships, have begun to appear. Penelope Campling has talked about the need for ‘intelligent kindness’ from those working in healthcare. Yes, this costs money, and it is much harder to do it when money is short and the system is under such pressure. But some of us have long memories. Attitudes and training of staff were not necessarily so much different when the finances were healthier. Money may help but it wont solve the problem of the how the way care is provided can sometimes do much more harm than good- and the cost may be even greater than doing it differently.

I wonder what happened now to the many young women who ‘resisted’ treatment in the wards where I visited one of my most severely ill patients with anorexia. Who is caring for them now? What long term impact did a rigid unforgiving approach doing things to them rather than with them have on them? I hope that many have recovered but I cannot help wondering if some have been diagnosed with personality disorder for being ‘difficult’ and/or rejected from the system. Resistance in therapy is something to work through with a person, not punish them for.

At the end of the article the TV presenter’s daughter talks about how she was eventually helped to recover, in an NHS day care programme. Her words have stayed with me this month.

‘I had a key nurse who really understood me and saw the Maddy without the demons. She made me realize that inside me was still laughter and joy. I was lucky, but mental-health treatment should not be a lottery. The kind of unit that eventually helped me is all too rare. I feel desperately that things need to change and now is the time for action. Otherwise it will be too late’.

Maybe I am too idealistic. But I’ve resisted being damaged by the system too.

Breaking the rules

Last month was the first since I have been writing a blog that I failed to post anything. In the few days between Christmas and New Year I caught myself thinking:

I haven’t written anything- I must get on with it. In December I told myself I was going to try and blog more not less frequently, and now I haven’t done anything at all.

To be fair to myself, which I am not very often, I am the lead editor of a multi-author book (the second edition of Primary Care Mental Health, to be published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists), which is already past its submission date, and taking up quite a bit of my energy. Not everyone gets his or her chapters to you in time. There are only so many hours in one day when you are trying to do really important things like spend more quality time with your loved one and two storms, Barbara and Connor, pass immediately over your tiny windswept house in succession. But I found myself thinking I really must do this. I should be writing.


I’ve spent most of my life making rules for myself. I must work really hard. I must try not to upset other people. It wasn’t until I had cognitive therapy that I was able to identify them for what they are: my crazy rules for living, that I have often castigated myself for failing to live up to. But the problem is that knowing how your mind works doesn’t always stop it from pulling a fast one on you when you aren’t paying attention, and starting to set itself another impossible goal before you realize what it is up to. And before you know it, you’ve gone and done it again- and you are ruminating about something you have said and done- or haven’t done, once more.

But then the strangest thing can happen- and you get a sudden flash of insight- and feel a fool.

Just before the holidays I had to tell someone I am working with on a project that I disagreed with them. This is something that hasn’t always gone well- usually because I get too emotional about things rather than thinking about exactly what I want to achieve from the interaction- another thing that I learned in therapy. When I push my point home a little too hard I have been told I can be scary, even though I am the one who is actually quivering with fear. I told another colleague about what had happened and she just shrugged: They’ll get over it. And suddenly I realized that it was only in my head that it was a big deal. When you ruminate, you can begin to think that the other person knows how much you have been preoccupied by it. But of course they don’t do they?

I wish I had been able to gain the self-confidence earlier in my life to be able to say those four words to myself more often. But I’ve been thinking about them the last few days whenever I start to feel guilty about not posting the blog. I gave myself permission to break a rule – one that I had made myself. Not only was it a relief to do it, but I will get over it!

Happy New Year!

I don’t want your sympathy

Please don’t be offended, but when I’m not feeling well I don’t want your sympathy.

I know that I get depressed. But when someone is being sympathetic towards me it does feel rather like he or she is really thinking more about what they would feel like if this awful thing happened to them too. People can sometimes be really very kind to me when they are feeling sympathetic, and I appreciate that. I can see they do want me to feel better. But that warm feeling only lasts as long as I don’t do something to upset them- like shout at them or start arguing and tell them to go away. They can lose all sympathy for me then, because they really can’t feel very positive about the new angry version of me- and you need to feel ‘good’ about a person to have that warm glow of sympathy for them.

But when I lash out at others that is me too. That is how I can be when my mood gets low. I am irritable. I can remember a couple of times when I’ve seen pity in the faces of people around me. I’ve made them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. But I don’t want your pity either thanks. Sometimes that has come with the implicit suggestion that I should be able to control myself better, even though I don’t think I can at the time.

What I want is for you to be curious about my life and who I am. To make a connection with me by trying to imagine exactly what it feels like to be me, in the situation in which I find myself. To be empathic. You don’t have to like me to feel empathy for me- you simply have to try and understand how and why I feel and behave the way that I do. To do that you have to have a conversation with me. When a health professional talks to me as though I am a real person we both experience something more meaningful. We meet as human beings- what Martin Buber called the I-Thou interaction. But the way that mental health services operate now, it sometimes feels impossible for anyone to get to know anyone else very well. You might be constantly being assessed as to your suitability for a service and be shuttled through many places for which you don’t seem to be ‘quite right’. No connection is made because it will only be broken again- the professionals retain their detachment. You become an ‘it’ to be processed in the system rather than a person, and you don’t feel helped either.

Some mental health professionals must, I am sure, think this is a better way of working because it feels safe and organized. But ultimately it is damaging and dehumanizing to everyone, both you and them. Sometimes they say they cannot help because you are not yet severely unwell enough- other times because you are simply too hard for them to cope with. Once again, they offer you their pity but nothing else.

Compassion has become a bit of a buzz word in the last couple of years, but I fear it is at risk of becoming commodified like so many other important qualities of health care. When you have compassion for someone you ‘suffer with’ them and you have a desire to relieve their suffering and help them. Personally I think its hard to have true compassion for someone unless you have time to get to know who they are and what their problems are- to have an ‘I-Thou’ rather than an ‘I-It’ encounter with them. There are few truly altruistic people who are universally good and willing to spend their lives helping everyone, regardless of what they know about them. The philosopher David Hume wrote that as humans we are characterized at best by limited generosity; especially on a Friday afternoon at 4.30.

So I fear unless you can truly make an empathic connection with a person rather than simply feel sympathy for them, the extent of your compassion will be limited. It will disappear as soon as they disappoint you. I’ve seen this happen to so many people with ‘troublesome’ behaviour with whom caring professionals have not made that important attempt to understand a life from a different perspective than their own. I have felt it from colleagues when my own behaviour was no longer within ‘acceptable’ limits for ‘depression’.

I think mental health professionals must take time to reflect on what motivates them to take up their profession. Many seem to want to maintain their ‘professional’ distance rather than get emotionally engaged and I fear this is all so easy to do in a fragmented and overburdened system like the one we now have. I have met many who retain the ‘I-it’ perspective as a cloak of (imagined) superiority. Some seem more driven by a feeling of pity for those of us who are more unfortunate in their lives, or move no further than sympathy- which I have indicated above has serious limitations. They do this rather than risk finding out that patients and service users are human too. For if you do that you have to admit the possibility that their ‘afflictions’ may not be unique to them. You may even be susceptible too- and then you would definitely not be satisfied with mere sympathy would you?

My memoir, ‘The Other Side of Silence: A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression is available in bookshops and on Amazon UK here. USA here.

Other people

Our relationships with other people both play their part in how and why we became depressed, and the trajectory of our recovery. It isn’t easy to climb back up from despair without the support of others, but if you are a person who finds negotiating everyday relationships with other people problematic, then it can be so much harder to re-engage with the world – which is full of other people.

Contrary to what some people might think, I am a very shy person. If, when Sartre said ‘Hell is other people’ he meant the perpetual struggle with the idea of how we are regarded by others, then that perfectly describes something that has troubled me for much of my life. One of earliest memories is of how much I used to enjoy throwing myself about to music as a very small child. I must have been about 5 years old- and I can recall jumping around on front of the radiogram, watched by my amused parents – but then some time afterwards, at a birthday party, being told very firmly by another girl that what I was doing was very definitely not dancing. Was that when I first felt acutely self-conscious? If so, it has stayed with me ever since.

I overcame my anxiety about dancing when I discovered nobody really cared how you moved around to the rhythm. At parties you would have most likely found me in the kitchen talking to the one person there I felt confortable with, having a long conversation – or in the middle of the dance floor lost in the music. When you are dancing you don’t have to talk and you can pretend to be someone else. It was the attempt at exchanging niceties when the music finished that I always found so difficult. Reading the signals about whether to stay on the floor- or not. Eventually I just danced away on my own.

So many of us spend our whole lives paralysed by worrying what other people think of us when we approach them. I have learned ways of coping with my shyness by creating a different persona- someone with much more confidence who can perform when out ‘in public’. I’ve also had to do that quite often in the last year while talking about my book. I can allow myself to become someone else, who still has access to my ideas, just for a short period. It is both liberating but also very tiring because a performance is involved. But I still intensely fear those situations when I have to enter a room and find someone with which to exchange pleasantries. Somehow I am always the person who is anxiously standing alone in the corner with a glass of wine in her hand pretending to look at the bookshelves. I have never acquired that skill of moving from person to person working a room.

Talking to someone who is as anxious as I am:

Me: so how are you enjoying the conference then?

Other: its really good isn’t it…when did you arrive?

Me: Yes it is…so are you presenting something?

Trying to join a conversation in which I automatically make the assumption I am an unwanted interloper.

Me: hi- how are you? I haven’t seen you both for a while?’

Other 1: so tell me more about this…I didn’t catch your reply just then.

Other 2: yes, it’s noisy in here isn’t it?

(Very awkward couple of minutes that feels like eternity while conversation continues, and I don’t know if I should move away- or stay until one or the other turns and sees me…)

I can so clearly remember those occasions when the conversation has gone something like:

Me: Hi, may I join you?

Other: actually we’re having a private meeting here.

Me: oh my apologies. (Heads back to pick up another glass of wine and examine the book case).

Indeed I can still tell you exactly when this has happened, where and with whom. Because I’m also quite sensitive and thin-skinned. I’m easily hurt and tend to feel things deeply. When I’ve been severely depressed there have been times when I’ve been paranoid- which has resulted in me avoiding other people even more.

However the other side of that sensitivity, is that when I’m functioning well I do seem to be fairly tuned in to the feelings of others- something that helped me to understand and empathise with my patients throughout my career. And in my clinical work I was able to manage my shyness because I was aware that the person I was treating was seeking my help, and being the real me was an important element of providing that. I have also come to terms with my natural introversion. I much prefer to live in my own head than in the real world, and the doing anything with people in large groups (who in my experience tend to be ‘dog people’ with some notable exceptions) is my particular idea of hell. Give me a one-to one chat in the kitchen with a cat person and I will be contented and relaxed for the rest of the evening, after I’ve danced myself to exhaustion.

When you are seeking help for mental health problems you can spend a great deal of time worrying about what the other person in the room, the therapist, thinks about you, rather than focusing on telling them what they need to know about you. You filter out what you are too frightened, embarrassed or ashamed to talk about until you begin to realize that, in that very room, you are re-enacting the most difficult encounters you have ever had with other people. Those painful moments when you were either confirmed in your fears or hopes about the motivations of others, or embarked on a lifetime of being too afraid to find out. And there’s the rub for people like us, because who we become is ultimately determined by our relationships with significant others.

So if you meet me and I seem a little diffident, I’m not being rude and trying to ignore you, I am simply shy. I’m not a natural at relating to other people and don’t have a wide social circle, but I hope I am a good, and loyal person to have as a best friend. And it is those close friendships and relationships that have been so important in getting through the last two decades.

PS: I also carry my heart on my sleeve- and find it very hard to tell a lie convincingly.


I know many people have enormous difficulty accessing therapy for depression- but as someone who has benefited for it, provided it, and supervised others, I realize how fortunate I’ve been, and how important it has been personally for me. Antidepressants have helped me with many of the symptoms of depression, but I still needed to sort out the conflicts and problems in my life that had contributed to the emotional mess in which I found myself. We keep hearing how there will be medication tailored to suit each individual some day, but I don’t think there will ever be a tablet labeled ‘take two a day to come to terms with how you feel about your mother.’

Over a period of about 12 years, during my twenties and thirties I underwent psychodynamic therapy, something in which I had also had some training – with 3 different therapists. Two of them helped me but there was one with whom I simply could not ‘gel’. Finding a therapist with whom you can make some kind of emotional connection is essential. I was able to learn how the problems in my childhood and the dysfunctional relationships I had with both of my parents were still affecting my adult life. I’m quite sure that, at the time, that was the best type of therapy for me. There were some major unresolved issues from my childhood and adolescence that  interfered with my ability to make stable, trusting relationships. I had also spectacularly failed to grieve for my father, who died when I had just qualified as a doctor. There was a period of a few years in my late twenties when my emotional life can only be described as chaotic. With therapy I was able to access the parts of my personality that I had been desperately trying to keep under control, but sometimes the new and more assertive me who emerged from the chrysalis of therapy was more of  an abrupt and outspoken moth still seeking the light of day, than a perfectly finished social butterfly. Nevertheless talking therapy helped me to address some of the difficulties that I had in the major relationships in my life and embark on what has been a successful second marriage.

Later, when undertaking a course of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), I found ways to begin to manage the way I ruminate about being me in this world and to cope more effectively with people in day-to-day life. Therapy was anchored in the present, not the past and I began to learn much more about how my mind actually worked. I could identify my previously unspoken, but very difficult to live up to,‘Rules for Living’ from David Burn’s book the ‘Feeling Good Handbook’, and I began to understand how attempting to live up to my internal very high but often conflicting standards, led to experiencing anxiety in everyday life. It is six years now since I completed that last course of therapy and I am beginning to realize just how long it can take for it to work. I still continue to have new insights into why I am the way I am, and what triggers and sustains those periods of anxiety and low mood, as life goes by. Life is a ‘work in progress’, or at least that is how it has seemed for me.

What most people get offered now in the first instance now is brief therapy, mostly based on CBT principles. For many people that will be very helpful- and when I was supervising a primary care based team of therapists, I saw how effective it could be- particularly if the behavioural aspect of CBT – behavioural activation- was employed first. CBT is very much about ‘doing’ things to feel better. Like setting goals for activities that you may have stopped doing. Or actively trying to address the depressive automatic thoughts that can both trigger and maintain depressed mood- both with the aim of getting you out of the shadow of depression to which you retreated when you lost the energy to fight anymore. In some ways the conceptual basis of brief CBT based therapy isn’t all that different from medication- in that both seek to ‘activate’ either your mind or your body. You get going and take up your life again. You are ‘fixed’ at least for the present as your deficit, of either serotonin or self-esteem ,has been addressed, as Alain Ehrenberg in his book on the sociology of depression, ‘The Weariness of the Self’, clearly describes. And in today’s climate you must of course take responsibility for helping yourself to get fixed- through self-help or presenting yourself at the doctor’s office.

CBT helped me when I was struggling with  my depressive ruminations and it was the right therapy at the right time. But when I was younger, and I couldn’t make sense of who I was or wanted to be, I needed time to build up trust in a therapist, and work on the complex problems from my past that actually interfered with me engaging in therapy in the first place. As I wrote recently, the simple ‘fix’ doesn’t work for a significant number of people who are depressed- particularly those dealing with painful conflicts and the impact of trauma- and we realistically should not expect it to. They need what I was fortunate enough to receive, but it is less available than ever- not only because of cuts, but the prevailing view that depression in primary care is something that can be ‘fixed’. Some people need time to engage, to trust and to work out how to discover who they are and learn how to forgive themselves for even being alive. Some who don’t respond to the simple fix are labeled as having borderline personality disorder- and their anguish is downgraded to ‘distress’ but they too are experiencing something that is only one aspect of the many faceted but hard to define experience that we call ‘depression’. I can assure you that it is real and those who suffer from it kill themselves.

Those who need more than the quick fix are  just as deserving of our attention- and our help.


Going North- the problems of trying to lead a disciplined life.

It is high Summer in Orkney, and I am back again in Scotland once more.

When things are difficult in my life I’ve always headed North. I don’t mean the North of England. That’s pretty much where I come from now. I’ve lived and worked there long enough to be a real ‘Northerner’. When I go South to London I like to broaden my accent a bit for the hell of it. But for most of my life the real North has only existed somewhere in my imagination- a magical place that never seems entirely real until I arrive there- and when I do it isn’t because I’ve reached some point on the map. Its more than that, it’s the sense of peace that infuses first my limbs and then seeps through my body. My heart rate slows down. I can feel the blood pressure in my arteries falling as the valves that constantly drip adrenaline into my system and contribute to my persistent feeling of anxiety are closed down one by one. Not by medication, but by nature. I can stop moving. My skin begins to tingle and itch as the wounds beneath, the invisible ones I’ve carried around most of my life, begin to heal.

Recovery isn’t just about absence of symptoms. Researchers who deal in the currency of symptoms talk about how in depression we pass from ‘normalcy’ (whatever that is) to the experience of ‘disorder’ followed hopefully by ‘response’ to the treatment, ‘remission’ of symptoms (in which they lessen or disappear) and then ‘recovery’, but many of us have ‘residual’ symptoms which wax and wane over time. Similarly psychological therapies are not designed to achieve a ‘cure’ in medical terms. We have to find ways of living with from day to day with our symptoms, problems and unresolved psychological conflicts. Health professionals rarely ask ‘How do you get through the day?’ yet that is such an important question. Every morning when you finally get out of bed, you have to face several hours of being, doing, feeling and interacting before you can get back under the duvet. For me, how to survive this daily experience is central to the process of recovery.

But I’ve never been very disciplined and in many ways I am still a rebellious child. I dislike going to bed. Without my husband to get me up to bed I can sit lost in my thoughts, reading, surfing the net or watching the TV for hours. I can lie in bed half the morning like a teenager.

I have this intention every time I come up here that this time I am going to get myself into some kind of healthy daily regime. There is so much information about the kind of lifestyle I should lead if I am going to learn how to manage my recurrent downswings in mood and loss of energy, which are the first signs that I might be becoming more severely depressed again. I know there are some things I can do to stay well. The list is endless and I know there is some evidence for all of these things: taking regular exercise, getting sufficient sleep for my age, avoiding alcohol and other ‘substances’ and eating a “Mediterranean diet” (not always easy in Scotland- never mind if you are on a low income). I also know that, given my propensity for relapses I should stay on the medication I have taken, in one form or another for more than 20 years, as well as the other tablets I have for my physical health problems. Keeping my mind on track is essential here as I am alone most of the time. It’s a great place to practice the skill of allowing the boxes containing ‘difficult thoughts’ to pass across on the horizon of my mind without having to unpack them. I know there is a lot of rubbish in them that really needs to be thrown out. If I allow a worry to take over my mind here its quite difficult to elude it. My mood soon begins to spiral downwards. These are the skills, based on Mindfulness I began to learn in the Cognitive Therapy I underwent a few years ago, to help manage ruminative thoughts.

I must get to bed before midnight and up before 8. Eat healthy meals that I have cooked myself. Take some exercise every day. There is a voice inside me saying ‘if you do these things you will not only be well, but you will be good’. But why do I have to be good? I find it impossible to be good all the time. Can anyone truthfully manage that?

So I cannot tell you a satisfying tale of how I did all of these things that I know should help me and they did. I can only say that when I am able to do them, they do.

I am gradually learning to forgive myself for failing to always live up to the targets I set myself for each day. I made them, so I can break them. I don’t have to spend every hour doing something useful- where does that idea come from? I have a choice. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t get any cleaning done until just before I return to Yorkshire. The North is a place where I find it easier to be me because it reflects something about what is inside me- I can see myself reflected in the lochs, the moorland and hills- a little chilly at times and not to everybody’s taste, but perhaps worth discovering. We all have to find a place where we feel we can be ourselves. I need to learn how to carry the essence of it back South with me. The longer I am here, with each visit, the easier it is becoming.

My latest book’The Other Sides of Silence- A psychiatrist’s memoir of depression is out now and also just published in  USA