‘Putting it on’

At the recent Cheltenham Book Festival, The chair of the mental health panel on which I was appearing to talk about my new book asked me perhaps the most difficult question that I’ve been asked so far.
‘So, there is a scene towards the end of your book where something quite shocking happens. Is it alright with you if we talk about it?’
I felt my chest tighten, as I knew exactly what he referred to. It was the moment in which I confronted my mentally ill brother about why he could not get out of bed. It was, I’m still terribly ashamed to admit, the moment that I hit him. I didn’t hurt him, at least not physically- but I did it, I had written about it, and now I was having to face that moment again- only this time in front of an audience.
‘Yes, you can,’ I replied, feeling my anxiety level rise even more, I knew I couldn’t avoid it.
‘So, can you explain how, given your profession as a psychiatrist, you raised your hand in anger and brought a stool, was it?- down on your brother who was clearly mentally unwell?’

It’s one of those moments when you are forced to really admit your thoughts and feelings. Why did I do it? What on earth was going through my mind? I remembered how upset, frustrated and annoyed I was that he seemed completely unable to help himself, whatever I tried to do to support him. He had spent three days in a room and could not get himself dressed. Instead many of his clothes had been torn up and lay on the floor around him. By that time neither of us were functioning in any rational way. I was no longer thinking as the trainee psychiatrist I was at the hospital down the road. I was an exhausted, tearful and desperate person trying to care for someone who seemed to be refusing anything I offered; And I knew what was going through my head: I really thought he was simply refusing to do anything for me; he was perfectly capable of it, he was just ‘putting it on’ to thwart me. In that moment I treated him like many others had in the past. I was acting as though his problems were not real.

In a recent article in the guardian a medical student also admitted ‘before working in psychiatry, I didn’t think mental health problems were real’. I’m sure that is what many people think- that those who complain of mental difficulties are probably just acting in some way, or are simply weak-willed. That certainly seems to be the prevailing view of those who think that people with mental illness can be forced to find work and financially sanctioned if they do not. Logically this can only work if you believe they have considerable control over most of their symptoms and problems-which infers that they must be, to some degree, ‘putting it on’ doesn’t it? If you are responding to voices or convinced of something that is labeled as delusional, your problems may become more real, but then you may simply invoke fear (‘these people should be put away’); or pity, (these poor people need some assistance) an emotional response I have seen in those mental health workers who are sympathetic to people with more severe mental health problems, but still appear to view them as simply the more unfortunate ones in society- much deserving of charitable help, fascinating in an academic kind of way, but not somehow as their equals- real people with lives, dreams and desires of their own.

And those of us with ‘common’ mental health problems, anxiety disorders, OCD (my brother’s problem) and depression? Well we are almost certainly believed to be responsible for our actions and quite capable of changing our behavior. This viewpoint is in many ways reinforced by the fact that many treatments require us to actively change our behavior and confront the very fears we are paralysed by. ‘Response prevention’ works in OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) but it is extraordinarily hard, at least initially, to stop yourself doing something- the very compulsive behaviour that has for many years relieved your anxiety. Similarly activating yourself in Behaviour Activation works in depression, but you may have to force yourself very hard to start doing it. Small goals are helpful at first, like simply being able to get out of bed; but even that can seem impossible. My brother couldn’t do it. He was stuck in his own loop of intense anxiety. Unfortunately therapists can sometimes be remarkably unsympathetic too- if you cannot comply you are sometimes labeled as ‘not motivated.’ The responsibility that the therapist has for helping to motivate you is disregarded.

I’ve learned a great deal since that awful moment in my spare bedroom thirty years ago. Some of it I found out quite soon when I confided in a colleague who was a clinical psychologist. He helped me to understand how my brother had, paradoxically, been able to get out of bed, dress and leave the house when I insisted, despite having been quite unable to do it for the previous few days. That didn’t mean he hadn’t been struggling- desperately trying to deal with the anxiety that manifested itself in obsessional behavior; but he was, temporarily at least, quite disabled by it. I’ve known that helpless feeling too in the times I’ve been unable to get out of bed, get dressed or open a book because I couldn’t find the energy or interest to even try. Sometimes, when I am well, I stop and wonder if I have been putting it on too, because if I can sit here and type a thousand words in an hour this evening, then there cannot be anything wrong with me surely? (despite the number of pills I’ve had to swallow today). One of the many reasons people with mental health problems are stigmatized is that they are not believed when they say how difficult it is to do normal everyday things. It’s patently obvious to anyone with common sense that they can just get on with it- can’t they? I know this is how people think, because I can honestly say that even with my expertise and own lived experience, there are times that I have thought this too. I’ve been there. Real empathy and the power to confront stigma that comes with it, means not only believing that isn’t so, but acknowledging the times you too haven’t wanted to understand why a person with mental health problems cannot do what you would prefer them to do, and why.

My book ‘The Other Side of Silence- A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression, published by Summersdale, is out now.

Take up thy bed and Work

The first time I heard the term ‘worklessness’ I remember a shiver running down my spine- it was the way in which it was being used to describe an apparent ‘human condition’ in which there was a sense of this being a lifestyle choice. We were told that it meant not simply being ‘unemployed’ but not actively seeking and/or being available for work; but it was not applied to the idle rich or others members of society, myself now included, who have concluded that work is not particularly good for their health but do not need to claim benefits (although my University Pension, funded partly through the state is still a benefit). At a time when the drive towards viewing employment as the desired outcome for people with mental illness was beginning to take precedence over other more used-centred outcomes it was a prescient warning of changes about which we are now only too aware- the move to treat people with physical but also particularly mental health problems as essentially capable of taking up their own beds and walking to the Job Centre, regardless of their condition.

I’m very suspicious of terms that are used by governments to describe those who do not comply with what is expected of them in our societies. As a psychiatrist I have been accused of being an agent of the state on more than one occasion, but the role played by British psychiatrists is a long way from that which was played by Nazi psychiatrists in the Third Reich who colluded in ‘euthanasia’ or by the psychiatrists in the Soviet Union who were willing to label political dissidents with the diagnosis of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’- which resulted in the expulsion of their organization from the World Psychiatric Association. The use of diagnoses to both label and treat dissident citizens continues to this day- for example in the controversial treatment in China of the practitioners of the Falun Gong meditation movement who are deemed to be psychotic and undergo ‘treatment’. We have also recently seen the notorious collusion between psychologists in the USA and torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Professionals who were willing to behave unethically in the service of the state for payment.

You may say these are extreme examples, but I think we should be concerned when political and social issues are described in terms which a) infer that the problem lies within the individual rather than society b) dresses this up in pseudo-psychological terminology and c) infers that there is a treatment, psychological and/or physical for this.

The report this week from Birkbeck College highlighted the way in which being unemployed is increasingly described in policy documents as a problem of the individual, who lacks motivation or the ‘right attitude’ to obtain a job. This is deemed to be ‘treatable’, although for a professional to engage in such enforced treatment, without which a person will lose his or her benefits has been described as ‘not only unethical but probably illegal’.

It’s difficult to see how a person with severe mental illness would be capable of acquiring the ‘right attitude’ when they are still struggling with the everyday tasks of life. Yet there are people in our government who clearly think this is possible, which is not only senseless but very, very scary. It reminds me of the attitude of some of the people I worked with over the years, who truly seemed to believe that mental illness is itself a ‘lifestyle choice’, which the person suffering not only had power over, but could choose to change if only they wanted to do so. An attitude which not only lacks basic empathy, but has a seductive simplicity which has emerged recently in the imperative to declare oneself ‘well’ and ‘recovered’, and has been around for many years in some so-called ‘self-help books which tell you that you can ‘climb out of your prison’ without any help in unlocking the door.

It’s a worrying trend in a society, which seems not only to care less than ever for those who have disabilities but to declare that a person has, within him or herself, the power to overcome their problems, if they choose to, and obtain a job with or without the aid of some motivational therapy. And what happens if they don’t take up their beds and work? The Rt Honourable Ian Duncan Smith would seem to believe they must work, because it is in itself a form of treatment. For as it famously said on the gates of Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei ‘Work Sets You Free.’