Community is the answer.

“…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.” – By Olivia Laing, The Lonely City.

In the summer of 1999 I moved from New Delhi to a little place called Antrim in Northern Ireland. I lived in a tiny room in the accommodation for junior doctors on hospital grounds. I didn’t know a soul there. Slowly I made a few friends at work. Unlike now, there were no mobile phones, whatsapp, skype, facetime or facebook then. Telephone calls costed a bomb.  People were friendly but everyone was a stranger. Initially I didn’t get their sense of humour at all. I felt foolish. I longed to speak my own language with someone. Anyone. But there was no one who would understand.

One evening I went to buy some chocolates to a nearby petrol station. There were 2 cashiers but only one of them had a long queue of people waiting their turn. I didn’t understand why. I went up to the cashier without a queue and made my payment. I didn’t get the meaning of the looks on people’s faces. It didn’t help that I was the only coloured person for miles. From some face expressions it was obvious that they had never ever seen a coloured person outside of the television. I felt alone. Very alone.

Urban loneliness is a common phenomenon.  Isolation causes inflammation. Inflammation can cause further isolation and depression. The cytokines released as a result suppress the immune system giving rise to more illness.

Frome is a historical town in Somerset. It is known as one of the best places to live in the UK. Dr Helen Kingston, a GP, kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives. They were treated like a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being with health problems. Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.

With the help of the local council and Health connections Mendip, she launched a community initiative in 2013. It main intervention was to create a stronger community. They identified and filled gaps in communications and support in the community. They employed ‘health connectors’ and trained up volunteers to be ‘community connectors’.  They helped people with handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds (where men make and mend things together). The aim was to break a familiar cycle of misery.

In the three years that followed, emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% across the whole of Somerset. In Frome they fell by 17%.

No other intervention, drug or procedure on record has reduced emergency admissions across a population.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A vacuum in the NHS.

When Saagar was ill, he filled out an online form and referred himself to IAPTs – Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. This programme  began in 2008 and has transformed treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression in England. Over 900,000 people now access IAPT services each year. I have used this service in the past and found it useful. I suggested to him to fill out the form a second time and he did. They usually call back within a day or two. He didn’t hear back from them.

I recently found out that IAPTs does not look after suicidal people. I would like to know what they do when they read a self-referral form of this nature.

There is a vacuum in the NHS. There is little face to face support for those who feel life is no longer worth living. Why do most people with physical illnesses ask for help? Possibly because they trust they will receive appropriate help from the system. Why is it that many people with mental anguish don’t approach the medical services for help? Probably due to lack of trust.

The Listening Place works towards filling that vacuum. A few days ago I visited their premises, a short walk from Pimlico station, in the heart of London. This airy, green, warm and welcoming place felt ideal for anyone in need of care, support and understanding. Here, individuals can speak openly about their feelings without being judged. They receive on-going support from trained volunteers over a number of weeks as deemed appropriate. The volunteers help relieve emotional pain and stress and offer opportunities to consider alternatives to suicide. Anyone over 18 can be referred to them by themselves, other charities, NHS as well as health and social care organisations. They try to give continuity by facilitating you to speak with someone who knows you from before. They charge nothing and keep your information confidential. It is remarkable that they are open 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week.

Phone: +44 2039067676; Email: referrals@listeningplace.org.uk

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Sarah Anderson, who was once director at the largest call centre for the Samaritans, set up The Listening Place in 2016 and the service has since helped hundreds of individuals with its unique approach to care. During our chat, Sarah’s passion and dedication to the cause comes through, loud and clear.

The world needs more people who give a damn about other people.

(PS: Through the grapevine I hear the future funding of IAPTs is in jeopardy. The vacuum grows.)

 

 

 

Cyclists rule!

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We know we are in Holland when the study table in our hotel room has a puncture repair kit in the drawer. Looking out of the window I see people riding their bikes with great abandon – simultaneously texting, chomping at an ice-cream, carrying a big bunch of flowers and chatting with a friend riding a bike in parallel. Pedestrians and automobiles are invisible to them. Bi-cycles go where they like, when they like. Anytime of day or night they shoot out of blind corners and come barging at us from all sides. Walking the cobbled streets as unsure visitor, we feel like an inconvenience to these bikers. I seriously envy them their security, their space and their freedom!

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A white van drives past us with ‘Authentic smaak’ emblazoned across the side in dark green. It brings amusement to our faces. Does this mean what we think it does? We guess it refers to one of the substances that Amsterdam is well known for. We later discover the innocent local meaning of ‘smaak’ is ‘taste’.

‘Dutch masters at the Hermitage‘ is an enlightening exhibition. We got up-close to some of Rembrandt’s great works. The portrait of an old jew from 1654 came out a clear winner in my eyes. The light on his hands and face, the fineness of the wrinkles, the stories hidden in them, the detail on the hands, the use of space, the aura of wisdom …

Our hotel lobby was dominated by a large portrait of a mother and child. Painter unknown. Dates unknown.

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It softened my heart. It spoke to me. It took me right back into the past. It made me sad in the most delightful way. It brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my lips. I didn’t need reminding that my very last holiday with Saagar, in April 2014 was to this very town, Amsterdam. He is with me, wherever I go. Our children never go too far away. They are in our DNA as much as we are in their’s.

 

 

Old people’s radio station

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During his holidays, Saagar and his friends would be subjected to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 second hand, as their mothers listened. They would later have amusing/interesting discussions about breast feeding, female education and employment challenges. This station was pre-set on the car-radio and at home. It was designated as the ‘old people’s’ radio-station by him. Invariably, ‘Gardener’s question time’ would come on while we were in the car together, travelling over the weekend. It was quaint by its sheer irrelevance to us as we could barely keep our 4 nameless indoor plants alive.  Our urban pre-occupations meant we didn’t have a gardening vocabulary.

‘Just a minute’ was our all-time favourite – a panel of funny people asked to speak for one whole minute on a given topic without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The seemingly innocent topics often held great potential for hilarity, for example, billiards, the best thing about cats, how I spread a little happiness, keeping a straight face, my love of the absurd, garages and such. The correct and incorrect challenges posed by the panellists generated tremendous amount of laughter. Our attempts at giving each other topics resulted in great amusement.

On Thursday evening I was asked if I’d like to be a guest on Woman’s hour to talk about Saagar. It was unbelievable. It made me smile and cry at the same time. What a paradox! Of course I’d love to be on Woman’s hour. Under these circumstances? Meeting Jenni Murray was an honour. She was down to earth and professional, looking just as I imagined,  in her trademark glasses sitting just above the tip of her nose.I told her she had my dream job. She said Joan Baez had been in the studio the day before, sitting at the same chair as me. How cool! Oops! Saagar prohibited me from saying ‘cool’ as he thought it sounded all wrong coming from me. I wonder how he would feel about this interview if he knew. Maybe he does.

Despite making notes and preparing as well as I could, I was a bit flummoxed by some of the questions. I didn’t say everything I wanted to. I hope there will be other opportunities. This conversation must grow until everyone is a part of it in a meaningful and constructive way. In a way that saves lives.

A recording of the interview with brilliant and committed Mr Ged Flynn, the CEO of PAPYRUS and I:

Every day my love is new.

All those years ago, when we were kids, we attended medical school together. The Batch of 1983 had its 3rd re-union at Cochin, the capital of Kerala in South India over the last 3 days. I travelled from snow-bound Wiltshire to lush green tropics. Many of my classmates came together from all over the globe. Some brought their families. Others brought videos of their kids doing this and that. I brought memories. We shared stories of our teachers and colleagues from our time as adolescents and young doctors at our alma mater. We felt close to each other, reminiscing our naivety, vulnerability and innocence. Nostalgia of our ‘good old days’ of simplicity, like silk threads knitted us close.

We went sari shopping. My friend chose a pale blue sari with a gold border. Her 15 year old daughter commented, “it’s as bland as playing tennis without a net.” It was exactly the kind of thing Saagar would say. He would also take great pleasure in imitating the way I say, “So pretty. No?”. Aaaaaaaaargh!!!

Looking back:

2014: Saagar went.
2015: Longing
2016: Longing
2017: Longing

If I told my plight to a river, it would stop flowing. If I told it to a tree it would shed all its leaves. I burn in this fire of longing, again and again, every day. I have become a boat of compassion filled with the gold of nothing, riding the waves in search of my beloved. I weather the tides of sorrow and happiness while my longing lives in me. I find my beloved in my longing. There is no destination no more.

An ancient parable goes like this: Once a forest caught fire and all the birds and animals of that forest started to leave. There was a bright little parrot who decided to stay. The tree that housed it said, ”You have wings. Go. Fly away.”
“I ate your fruit, I soiled your leaves, I played from branch to branch. You burn and I fly away? You love but once.”
The utterly foolish parrot goes and plunges herself in a nearby lake, comes back and flaps her wings over the blazing forest fire. Two drops of water fall. She goes back into the lake and come back with another couple of drops of water and sprinkles them over the humungous fire. The other fleeing birds and animals start scoffing and laughing at her.
“What do you think you are doing?”, they say.
The parrot turns around and says “I am doing what I can.”
Just then the Gods pass by and see this bird. They take the form of an eagle and watch her closely. They are incredible moved to see her do what needed to be done, be in the here and now and her passionate endeavours to quench the fire in and around her. The Gods wept and the clouds burst into a heavy down pour of milk.

Everyday my love is new.
I wish you the same.

“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighbourhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open-up a new path only for you. Be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that has been denied.” – From ‘Forty rules of love’ by Elif Shafak.

The sun has risen.

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The longest night of the year is behind us. The sun is rising. We are sitting by the log-fire swapping stories of Christmas’s past, Si’s and his sister’s childhood, drinking pots of tea, mainly to carry with it slabs of brandy-soaked Christmas cake.

We recount our holidays from a few years ago when Saagar had the pleasure (not) of dressing his first pheasant with the help of an aunt from the country.  We all took turns at being beaten by him at table tennis. He looked gorgeous in a navy blue shirt and dark-rimmed spectacles. He had just been prescribed glasses. He was getting used to wearing them and I was getting used to seeing him wearing them.

Until he was 10, we religiously left a glass of wine and an orange for Santa on the mantle-piece. He wrote a letter to him every year. I remember he always started with “Dear Santa and Mrs Santa, …” 🙂 We took pictures with him. We watched his films and we found him to be cool and cuddly.

That year his gift was wrapped in a deep blue paper with glittery stars and snow-flakes in various shapes and sizes. He found just what he wanted inside. He jumped up and down for a bit and then sat down, visibly thinking.

“I saw a roll of this identical wrapping paper in the corner of the boiler cup-board.” He said. I sat on the sofa, over-smiling, as though I had nothing to hide. The mechanics of his brain clicked away as he figured out how the roll might have got there. I made feeble counter arguments.

“Maybe he had too many things to carry so he left some things here.”
“Maybe he wanted you to keep some of his favourite paper.”
“Maybe he has kept it for next year.”
“He left that paper there last year.”

He wasn’t fooled. That was the end of innocence.

Have a good one my darling, wherever you are. Lucky are the angels that are with you.
You are loved and cherished more than you know, Christmas or no Christmas.
Love you sweetheart! xxx

 

Confidentiality versus Life

Three years back I joined a club no one wants to be a member of. I became a parent who lost their beautiful child to suicide. He was 20. I didn’t think it was possible. I trusted his doctors to take good care of him. I trusted they would tell me if there was a real risk of him dying, given I am his mother and was his prime carer. I thought they had the expertise to identify and address ‘crisis’ when they saw it. Suicide was not in the script. It was not supposed to happen. I turn the fact of his sudden traumatic death over and over in my head and it makes no sense.

There are hundreds of distraught and bewildered members of this club. Common themes emerge from their stories. The commonest one is:

“They knew our child wanted to end his/her life but they didn’t tell us anything about it.”

Who are they?
Decision makers – Medics. Universities.

Why?
Because he/she is over 18, hence, technically an adult.
Their ‘confidentiality’ is paramount.

Is it?
Is it more important than helping them stay alive?

The Hippocratic oath states:
“I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.”

According to experts[1], these are the essential components of an effective suicide prevention safety plan:

  1. Discussing the reasons for living
  2. Safe environment
  3. Identify distress triggers
  4. Removing ways to harm yourself
  5. Activities to calm/lift mood or distract
  6. Contacts for general support
  7. Specific suicide prevention support
  8. Professional support
  9. Emergency contact details
  10. Personal commitment to follow safety plan

Most of the above cannot be implemented without the help of carers and families if the person in question is seriously unwell. This has been recognised by the Department of Health, Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists, GPs and Nursing along with The British Association of Social Workers and The British Psychological Society. Together they published a consensus statement entitled[2] “Information Sharing and Suicide Prevention” in 2014, the same year that my son, Saagar Naresh[3] passed away. It clearly states that practitioners should disclose information to an appropriate person or authority if this is necessary to protect a child or young person from risk of death or serious harm.

“If the purpose of the disclosure is to prevent a person who lacks capacity from serious harm, there is an expectation that practitioners will disclose relevant confidential information, if it is considered to be in the person’s best interest to do so.”

This is still not being practised. The world of medicine is a conservative and defensive one. Until the regulatory bodies, NHS Trusts and the Government come forward to reassure practitioners that their decision to share information appropriately will be supported by them, nothing will change.

While the world carries on, innocent youngsters die from lack of support and understanding from the very people who are best placed to help them. PAPYRUS, a UK charity dedicated to prevention of young suicides[4] demands that information be appropriately shared with carers and families by all who take care of vulnerable young people at risk of suicide.

Confidentiality versus Life. It’s a no-brainer.

References:

[1] https://www.healthcareconferencesuk.co.uk/news/newsfiles/alys-cole-king_1219.pdf

[2] https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/social-welfare/pdfs/non-secure/i/n/f/information-sharing-and-suicide-prevention-consensus-statement.pdf

[3] www.kidsaregifts.org

[4] PAPYRUS (https://www.papyrus-uk.org/)