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.

Children and young people first

There are some images from my six months as registrar in child psychiatry that stay with me.

It was the early 1980s and the social worker and I were visiting a young single parent living on the 9th floor of a tower block in Salford 6. She had just moved back to live with her parents after the breakdown of her relationship. As she opened the door we were greeted by her 6 year old daughter, a pretty little girl who danced towards us, twirling around in circles. Only she continued to twirl around, and around, and around the overcrowded space completely absorbed in in own world. According to her mother she spent much of the day performing an unearthly dance between the furniture and screaming loudly every time she was prevented from doing this. She had no words. I could see how much her mother and grandparents loved her, but their faces were lined with desperation. The young mother already had the air, and appearance of someone at least a decade older than her years.
“I’ve been told she’s autistic,” she said, starting to cry, “but I don’t know how to cope with her…I just can’t, and now my husband has left me.”

It wasn’t difficult to see what was needed was some intensive support for the whole family. It was then, as now, in short supply but that didn’t stop us trying to put it in place. In my time at the clinic in the old Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in Salford (not the shiny new one at the Infirmary) I witnessed over and again the impact of serious mental health problems and difficulties on families already struggling to cope in unsuitable or substandard housing. And it reminded me, sometimes too often, of the impact that the problems of my younger brother, who developed obsessive compulsive disorder at the age of 7, had on my own parents’ physical and mental health.

As my friends will know, I’m not particularly ‘good’ with children (I have none of my own) so when I was on-call over the weekend I struggled to try and strike up conversations with silent teenagers in the paediatric ward, the day after they had taken an overdose. They usually went something like this:
‘Hello, my name is Doctor Gask. And your name is Jenny- is that right?’
Silence…no eye contact…a reluctant nod.
‘I really wanted to find out what happened to you- to see if we can help…is that okay?’
…’I suppose so.’
‘OK. So would you like to tell me what happened yesterday?’
More silence.
I soon learned, by watching the consultant I was attached to, a kind and extraordinarily astute child psychiatrist who was close to retirement, that direct questions were not the way to engage a young person in talking about their problems. If they turned up for a follow up appointment- and that often unfortunately depended on whether their parents saw the need for them to have any help, not only their own willingness to come, he would set about making a young person feel at ease, without actually appearing to make any effort at all. He would smile like a genial grandfather, and simply strike up a chat about things completely unrelated to the events that had brought them into hospital: their favourite pop stars (they were not called ‘bands’ then), hobbies, best friends and gradually build trust before moving onto the thorny question of why they had taken the tablets. After forty minutes or so he would be ready to ask: ‘So how would you like things to be different?’ followed by ‘I wonder how we can help you with that…should we try and look at that together?’

I realized quite soon into my six months working with children and young people that this wasn’t where I wanted to be for the rest of my career. I didn’t have the kind of skills and patience that the consultant had. I found it difficult to work with families where children whose apparently quite normal behavior did not meet the expectations of their parents. In particular I felt angry when parents failed to take up the offer of help because of their perception (perhaps rightly so) that we were suggesting the difficulties their children presented with had a great deal to do with their own life problems and parenting style.

However what I did learn, and has never left me, was the acute awareness of how the people I saw later in their lives with depression and anxiety, in their twenties, thirties and older, had first developed difficulties with their mental health in their youth. This was where their problems had begun.

I returned to work in Salford 20 years later and helped to set up a primary care based mental health team. Our base, at first, was in a building attached to the old Salford Royal Hospital where I had attempted and failed to strike up conversations on a Saturday morning. Only now the building, like many older hospitals, had been converted into luxury flats. As I discussed in supervision, with the Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, the problems of the people being referred to us, I was acutely aware that the generation we had struggled to help back in the 80’s were the very people now presenting to the mental health services. What happens to us in early life- our relationships, experiences within our own families, continues to have an impact on our mental well-being for the rest of our lives.

Services for children and young people with mental health problems have never been well funded and now in the UK they have been cut more than ever before. What services do exist are withdrawn at school leaving age and very many of those who have succeeded in getting help fail to meet the ever more selective criteria of adult mental health services, unless they have been lucky enough to be seen in some of the newer services which don’t recognize this traditional cut-off point, which is completely unsupported by what we now know from research:

not only that adult mental health disorders are common in the population, but that most of them have their onset by adolescence. This period of life after puberty also sees a range of important organisational developments in the brain that last until the late 20s and usher in adulthood as might be defined from a developmental rather than a social or legal point of view.’

Yet this is exactly the period when adequate mental health care is perhaps most difficult to access.

I was recently asked in an interview (by Ruth Hunt) what my priority would be for funding when the new money promised for mental health care, too little once more, finally arrives. I didn’t hesitate. It has to be for children and young people, if we are going to begin to try and prevent the cycle of suffering. More families failing to cope and the next generation experiencing the same problems.
It has to be children and young people first.

My memoir about depression and Psychiatry: The Other Side of Silence is available now


I wish they had taught me about ambivalence at medical school. It would have made my life immeasurably easier if I had understood it earlier. Instead I was quite a long way into my career before I really began to see how important it was both to my patients, and to me personally.

I was taught what to do for each clinical problem with the expectation that a person would be ready, and willing, to accept my advice. If he or she wasn’t, they were something of a nuisance, indecisive, unable to recognise what was good for them. ‘Oh she’s ambivalent about it,’ I would be told if a person was shilly-shallying around. Ambivalence as a concept was confused with indecision. But it isn’t. It’s something much more than that. It’s about wanting to have something at the same time as not having it. Wanting to be thin, but to eat a large slab of chocolate every day.  Wanting both the benefits of sobriety and inebriation. Even wanting to be both dead, and alive at the same time. I know from talking to people who have tried to kill themselves and failed, that they sometimes wanted to be both still here among the living, yet dead and out of their suffering too. Some of them changed their minds as soon as they had acted to end their lives and came to seek help. Ambivalence underpins so many of the problems people have brought to me, and my own difficulties too. I was an ambivalent medical student, and for many years an ambivalent doctor. I wanted both to belong to a profession and all the benefits that come with it, and not to belong because of the cost to me personally and emotionally.

If you haven’t read Kenneth Weisbrode’s recent short book on the topic, entitled ‘On Ambivalence’ I can highly recommend it.

‘Ambivalence lies at the core of who we are. It is something more subtle, and more devastating than human frailty. Weaknesses can be remedied. Ambivalence comes, rather from too much ambition. Desire begets dissatisfaction, and vice versa. Optimization becomes a fetish. Wanting the ‘best’ means that we must have both or all and are reluctant to give up any option lest we pull up the roots of our desire. That is why ambivalence is so hard to confront, understand. Or master. And why it can be so disastrous.  Most of us know this. Yet we continue to deny it.’ (p2)



The person who is ambivalent about their eating, or drinking, or lifestyle ( add ad infinitum) is not only unable to choose the from the options they have in front of them, but refuses somehow to admit that there is even a choice to be made at all. It’s both a painful yet oddly pleasurable place to be. We cannot have it all, but still somehow  want to believe that we can. We don’t have to decide what to do, to change our lives, because there isn’t a decision to be made. Yet we suffer because we struggle to live what is an impossible existence, only we don’t admit how impossible it really is.

If I had understood this when I was younger, I might have been able to recognise how much suffering is rooted in ambivalence. I began to understand it when I worked in addictions, and later with people who had eating disorders.  I’ve talked to many people who have felt judged rather than helped by those they have consulted; who have been labelled as weak because they are unable to ‘choose to change their behaviour’, rather than essentially ambivalent about life and what they wanted from it. I was influenced by Bill Miller, who first described Motivational Interviewing in the 1980s. I remember reading about how the clients of the clinic where he worked were routinely asked if they were willing to accept the label of alcoholism and accept treatment. That was exactly what I witnessed as a junior doctor:

Consultant: ‘So do you think you are an alcoholic?’

Patient : ..’No… I don’t’

Consultant: ‘Are you prepared to attend AA?’

Patient: ‘Why would I want to do that.?’

Consultant: ‘Well, if you aren’t prepared to admit that, you aren’t motivated to accept help. Come back again when you are.’

We may say it doesn’t happen quite like now, but it does. A person who doesn’t see the need to make a decision about taking up therapy and attends only intermittently is rapidly discharged for being unmotivated.  Instead of trying to understand their ambivalence and empathising with the problems they are experiencing which make it impossible for them to contemplate a decisive response to their problems, we treat them as wasting our time. When he first described Motivational Interviewing, Miller emphasized the responsibility of the therapist in helping the client to acknowledge and explore their ambivalence. When the person is ‘unmotivated’ we are discharged, as therapists, from our responsibilities.

I was personally fortunate. I had a therapist who was prepared to engage me in acknowledging that I both wanted to succeed and to fail in my career, and ultimately to both to live and to die. I’m still ambivalent, but I don’t want to talk about that now. There isn’t time. My cat is currently driving me crazy, wanting to be on both sides of the back door at once. Now that’s ambivalence.


Reassessing ‘assessment’

One of the side effects of having more time than I used to is that I begin to brood over the meaning of the words I once used without a second thought. It particularly happens on long walks without the running commentary of the radio. In a recent bIog I talked about ‘recovery’. Now I’ve started to think about a word I would never have given much more than a second thought too as a working psychiatrist- ‘assessment’.

The problem with many words in mental health is that they can begin to assume alternate meanings. Use of the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ tense can be important too in conveying a sense of who has the power. There is something very passive about being ‘counseled’ and the act of counseling has itself taken on various meanings from receiving counseling as ‘therapy’, wise counsel as ‘advice’ and being ‘counseled’ as a form of disciplinary act.

I don’t remember as a psychiatric trainee being specifically trained to carry out a ‘psychiatric assessment’. I was taught how to master a psychiatric interview, which considered of ‘taking the history’ (which can sound and feel rather like a rather one-sided action on the part of the doctor, removing something from the patient) and carrying out a mental state examination. I soon learned that for the interview to be effective I had to spend as long actively engaging the patient in thinking I was a person with whom they would be willing to share their experiences, as asking all the questions that psychiatrists are (in)famous for. Later on, I began to research how both GPs and psychiatrists approach the ‘consultation’ as the meeting between professional and patient is commonly known in primary care. Indeed actively ‘consulting’ the doctor conveys more power to the patient than being interviewed or assessed by them. I spent hours, days and weeks observing interactions for my research. I remember the patient who, when asked by the psychiatrist whether he knew if he had had a traumatic birth quite reasonably replied ‘well the Battle of Britain was on at the time doctor’.

Somewhere along the line, the psychiatric interview or consultation became the ‘assessment’ with a list of questions to ask the patient. Changes in the examination system of doctors reinforced this, with the shorter structured OSCEs (Observed Structured Clinical Examinations) with role-played patients, that are probably fairer to the candidates, but reward marks for asking the ‘right questions’ when ‘assessing depression’, ‘suicide risk’ or ‘hallucinations’. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I teach suicide risk assessment skills. The blurb for my latest book on depression mentions assessment too.

So what’s the problem I have with assessment? Well, when a person assesses another they are implicitly making a judgment about their suitability for something or their ability to achieve particular goals. As a patient I have been assessed for therapy. That’s fair enough perhaps when there are indications as to whether or not a person might benefit rom that intervention. Psychologists regularly carry out assessments perfectly reasonably as not everyone will benefit from their specialist expertise. But how often is this mutual assessment? Are you a person I could talk to?

And so often now I see mental health assessment as a tool to exclude rather than seek to help a person find the help they might benefit from. Its more ‘this person isn’t psychotic or actively suicidal so there is nothing we can offer them’ rather than, ‘this person is consulting me. They are extremely distressed. They don’t understand what is happening to them. How can I help them?’ In our increasingly fragmented health care system everyone is carrying out assessment according to their particular ‘criteria’ while the service user understandably feels they have been ‘assessed to death- when is someone going to help me?

Can we move away, in mental health care, from this culture of assessment back to one of a consultation, which David Tuckett and his colleagues first described many years ago as the ‘Meeting Between Experts’?

I am the expert in what I am experiencing. You are the expert in what might be effective. In consulting you and providing you with all this very sensitive information about my inner life, I’m an trusting that you as a professional will be able not only to say if you will be able to help me personally, but also that you will do your best to help me access what I need.

I really need your assistance now to navigate this increasingly hostile system of care. I am asking for your help.

Making a connection

The young woman, we can call her Mary (let me say now she is not a real person), is sitting in the chair opposite me.
‘What is it like, at home?’ I ask.
‘Difficult, no forget I said that.’
I wait a moment, then take a risk and ask, ‘What’s hard about it?’
Mary picks silently at a scab on her left arm. I can see blood beginning to ooze from beneath the hard carapace as she worries away at it with what remains of her fingernails. On both of her forearms are marks where she has scratched herself repeatedly with a razor blade. The newer injuries are still an angry shade of red. The older ones look like the silvery trails a snail leaves on paving stones. She has told me already how she feels a strange sense of relief when she cuts. She doesn’t want to kill herself, but there are times when she needs to have some relief from her inner pain, and this is something which seems to help, albeit for a short while.
‘Can you tell me a little bit about home…?’ I try again.
‘I can’t say I hate it can I? I mean they care about me, I suppose. But I can’t be what they want me to be.’ She sobs and her tears drip onto the arm of the chair.
I push the box of tissues towards her. ‘Do you have to be what they want?’
‘I don’t want to be…different.’
‘So tell me about being different…what does that mean?
‘Maybe…I don’t know… you feel different?’
Silence. No- a shrug. A response.
‘Maybe that’s okay,’ I try again, ‘… to be different. Or maybe it’s not…it can be hard.’
‘Why? Why should it be okay? Not fitting in!’ She sounds angry now.
I find myself backing off a little, ‘I don’t know. Sometimes people just feel different.’
She nods but still looks at her lap.
Encouraged I continue. ‘Sometimes they are, different I mean. That’s OK with me, but how about you?’
Mary looks up. I detect an uncertain, conspiratorial glance and the first flicker of a smile. I sense we have started to make a connection.

Psychological therapy is a topic about which there is a great deal of mystique wrapped up in layers of ever more complex jargon. Each approach comes with its own vocabulary, set of abbreviations and training course. I had some training in my youth in psychodynamic psychotherapy; I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a lot of therapy too. I’ve also spent much of my life trying to help health professionals communicate more effectively with people who are distressed.

From all of this I’ve learned a few lessons:

Asking endless questions about symptoms is not the way to connect with someone.

Being a good listener is essential but not sufficient. You have to show that you are listening, and this means saying or doing things helpful things during the conversation. Not too much, and not too little. You have to be able to pick up on important cues, which may be verbal or visual, and comment on them. These important cues are the ones redolent of emotion.

You cannot fake empathy. If you don’t feel it, don’t pretend.

You have to be ready to hear awful stories about the suffering that people have endured. If you are not ready to do that then you shouldn’t be in a position where a person may need to confide in you.

You need someone to talk to about what you hear. Supervision is essential and many people in the caring professions simply don’t get adequate opportunity to make sense of their experiences with patients and service users with the end result that they emotionally close down and become insensitive to the pain of others.

You don’t have to be trained in psychological therapy to be able to connect with a person, but psychological therapies are useless when no emotional connection is made. Some people who have been trained are still hopeless at connecting.

Having your own experience of emotional distress isn’t enough. It might help you to understand what it feels like, but that won’t necessarily be what this person feels like and your work is to connect with them, not make them connect with you.

Without a connection you won’t feel able to talk about how you feel, develop trust and share your worries. I know this because the professionals who helped me most wanted to find out who I was and made the effort to connect with me. I will never forget them, or those of my patients with whom I was fortunate enough to forge similar bonds.