The problem with resilience

‘Resilience’ is one of those words its hard to avoid at the moment. No one seems to be quite sure what it means, but one suggestion has been that it refers to a person’s ability to maintain or regain a state of mental health in the face of significant adversity or death; in which case it is a quality in which I am undoubtedly lacking. I am very sensitive to the ups and downs of life especially loss. I get anxious and depressed; I’ve had periods off work. I may have successfully survived a lifetime of work as a psychiatrist and an academic, but I’ve also had to use mental health services to keep afloat. Life in the NHS is challenging and I’ve not got through my career without some serious wounds to show for it.

Before the word ‘resilience’ achieved common usage, and its current prominent space on the buzz word bingo board of healthcare, I understood it broadly to be inversely related to the degree of vulnerability conferred by a combination of genetic heritage (see Goldberg & Goodyer)- which influences our temperament, personality and susceptibility to some types of mental health problems, early life experiences and social learning in childhood. If a group of people are exposed to the same degree and type of stresses most will cope, they will demonstrate resilience, but a minority will not. We all have differing degrees of it. Some will develop common mental health problems like depression and anxiety in response to traumatic events, and others less common ones, such as psychosis, but many others will get through relatively unscathed.

The General Medical Council (GMC) with whom I am still registered, although I no longer practice psychiatry, has recently decided that the current generation of doctors is less resilient than those in the past and students need to undergo resilience training in order to be tough enough for the job. I have a number of problems with this view:

  • As an excellent review of the topic by Balme and her colleagues in BMJ Careers recently stated ‘there are no consistent definitions, no standardized, valid or reliable measurements; and no robust studies into what resilience is, what the predictors of resilience are, and whether resilience is related to better patient care.’
  • So if you intend to screen for it please check out this first. If I were starting medical school now (and I still dream I haven’t yet passed my finals) I would want to know, as will others, exactly what it is I am lacking in (given that I tend to get depressed I will likely feel guilty and even more insecure) and whether being without it is going to be of harm to anyone but myself. We don’t screen out people with diabetes from being health professionals. Why should we even consider doing that with people who might be vulnerable to depression.
  • Because in an increasingly hostile working environment the reality is health care professionals are going to experience more mental health problems. They are human beings like the rest of us, although they are not encouraged to admit they need help, for fear of appearing weak. The culture is tough enough already.
  • Please don’t dress up this quality called ‘resilience’ as something for which they must take full responsibility (I have a problem because I lack resilience) rather than the NHS (I’m not very well because I do not work in a supportive and caring workplace). As Balme et al. point out resilience is always contextual – it’s a complex interplay between the person and their environment.
  • Please don’t assume that attending a few short workshops would increase my resilience much either. The evidence for the effectiveness of resilience training is patchy at best, and though there is a suggestion of some positive outcomes, these are mainly from self-report in studies lacking rigorous methodology. It might be more effective to address these problems I have in relating to the world and coping with stress much earlier in life before any thought of being a health professional is even a twinkle on the horizon.
  • What I would need is help to identify coping strategies like problem-solving. There is evidence that this works for people with depression, and those who self-harm in response to life stresses. I wish someone had taught this to me in childhood, it might have helped me earlier. I would need things I can rehearse to put into action at times when life gets tough. But I’m also going to need to be encouraged not feel too ashamed to ask for support and how to identify I might need it earlier rather than later, as so many health professionals who have consulted me have been unable to do. Fast and confidential access to help and support too, not having no choice but to consult a service that I work in, which happens to so many people now in mental health services in the UK.
  • And finally, please don’t assume that just because I’m not as tough as the GMC would perhaps like me to be, I would not be a good doctor. Since my book was published a month ago, I’ve heard from medical students who have feared for their future because they have experienced mental health problems at medical school, worried that they will not be strong enough to cope. Yet these very young people, who have experienced what its like to be a patient can bring a very special dimension to their work. Like me, they know what its like to be on the other side.

We all differ in our ability to deal with traumatic events and the stress of work, yet within that spectrum of abilities lies the potential for us to learn to listen, support and care for each other: as friends, colleagues, some managers and a insightful and proactive occupational health service did for me; supporting me through my sometimes difficult career.

My memoir about experiencing depression during my career in psychiatry is out now: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression ‘published by Summersdale.

Strategies for Living

In the last few weeks, while I’ve been largely alone in Orkney, I’ve been aware of having to cope with my mood and thoughts from day to day and reading about how people with mental health problems cope on Twitter and support each other.

I’ve also been reminded of something I read many years ago.

At the turn of the millennium, the Mental Health Foundation carried out some service user research and produced a report called ‘Strategies for Living.’ Over 400 people had completed Knowing our own Minds – a user-led survey of alternative and complementary treatments and therapies in mental health and Strategies for Living reported the findings from interviewing 71 people with experience of mental health problems in depth. This was a really positive piece of work, which highlighted the particular activities and experiences which people with mental health problems found helpful in coping with their everyday lives: from on-going survival strategies, such as the need for financial security to crisis strategies such as making contact with friends or professionals, ways of controlling symptoms such as taking medication, having therapy, taking exercise or using a Walkman (yes it is a few years old) to distract from hearing voices, to ‘healing strategies’ through religion and spiritual beliefs to complementary therapies.

Relationships with others were key. Several common themes could be identified:

• Acceptance
• Shared experience… shared identity
• Emotional support… ‘being there’
• A reason for living
• Finding meaning… and purpose
• Peace of mind… and relaxation
• Taking control… having choices
• Security… and safety
• Pleasure

Mental health services were largely absent from the accounts that people offered although some individual professionals clearly offered a great deal of valued support

Why am I reminded of this now?

How we cope from day to day is a very personal phenomenon. There are of course some common strategies that people find helpful and these were the ones reported in Strategies for Living.

However there are also some other ways of coping that were not reported in here. The strategies that people do not always want to admit to. I know some of these intimately. Despite growing up in a household of heavy smokers, I’ve never tried a cigarette, but I watched my father consume 40 a day as his own personal way of keeping life at bay. Excessive drinking is something I’ve always suspected I could sink into and I’ve consciously tried to cut down in recent months. It isn’t always easy. I spent some of my career working in alcohol services and I know how hard it can be to withdraw from alcohol and other substances. But there are other ways too that we cope with how we feel: eating, or not, over exercising, self-harm and self-injury , spending every night out on the town or shutting ourselves away completely from the world to the point that we feel completely isolated and ultimately brooding about strategies for dying rather than living. Suicidal thoughts are themselves a coping strategy. Knowing there is a way out when it all gets just too much.

My concern with much of the self-help literature, some of which sits on my own bookshelf unopened, is that it makes various assumptions:

  • We actually want to change, and stop using the sometimes self-destructive ways of coping we find helpful in day to day survival.
  • We can find the resources to be able to do that.
  • We have the material resources and social capital to be able to adopt some of the positive strategies people suggest to us, such as time, money and a place to live to start off with.

Its difficult to adopt new ways of coping until you have acknowledged what you will lose in giving up the other strategies, the ones health professionals would prefer you to unquestionably ditch. Such positive ways of coping cannot be prescribed (such as in the advice to ‘go home and have a warm bath and a cup of tea’ that currently seems beloved of some crisis support teams- actually I didn’t  see these even mentioned in Strategies for Living either). Health professionals need to start from where we are at now. What have we found helpful in the past? What do we do now to cope? What is difficult about changing ? And avoid being judgmental if they want us to be honest.

The problem with feeling depressed is that it involves rumination. Indeed in some cultures it is considered to be a problem of ‘thinking too much’. We become aware of our thoughts, and struggle to cope with them minute by minute. I certainly have some obsessional features to my thinking, and I’m aware that if the day doesn’t go ‘right’ in some often hard to clarify way, I can feel as though everything has gone ‘very wrong’. I have to mentally restart the day in some way. These thoughts can be painful and repetitive and I seek ways to avoid them. Distraction is probably the most effective way I’ve found and I deeply resent that some psychologists I’ve met seek to denigrate such an effective coping strategy as a ‘safety behaviour’ in CBT speak. Hell- give me a break- it’s what I find helpful!

There are many different strategies for living and quite a few for dying.
Help me to find the ones that fit me best to help me survive.
Don’t advise, lecture or proselytize.