Damage

‘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.

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.