Our own voices

Paramedics and trainee paramedics rotate through our Department of Anaesthesia to learn to manage airways safely. A few weeks ago, I had a young man in his mid-thirties, a trainee paramedic with me, learning about airway management. Out of curiosity I asked him, “What is the most annoying part of your job?” He was straight-up, “When people inflict injuries on themselves, I think it’s such a waste of time. It takes away from others with real problems, who really need our attention.” I just smiled. I wasn’t surprised. I know full well that paramedics do a great job of looking after all kinds of people in all kinds of trouble. But attitudes can only be changed through education.

A professor of Psychiatry tweeted today “Twice in the last week I’ve been told of cruel comments by health staff to people who had self-harmed. I really believe this is unusual now but it shows there is something deep-rooted that we have to eradicate.” A classic example of ignorance within medicine of attitudes within medicine.

No training of first responders is complete till someone with lived experience of a mental illness has spoken with them, be it a police academy, social workers, fire fighters, nursing or medical students or ambulance crew. Lived experience includes suicide attempt survivors, others who have experienced a suicidal crisis and those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Sharing by these individuals can be a powerful agent for challenging prejudice and generating hope for people at risk. It enriches the participant’s understanding of how people with these serious disorders cope with their symptoms, recover and lead productive lives with hope, meaning and dignity. The program also empowers those who are faced with mental illness and provides living proof that recovery is an ongoing reality. Presenters gain confidence and self-esteem while serving as role models for the community.

Disproportionate focus on research and clinical expertise too frequently fails to see the person at the centre of a crisis as well as their loved ones who ride the wave of terror of suicidal behaviour. This needs to change and with urgency.

Lived Experience is an underutilised and underappreciated resource in the UK.

Roses in the ocean, a charity in Australia is an excellent example of harnessing this invaluable resource and making a huge difference.

Men and boys

International Men’s Day is designed to help more people consider what action we can all take to “Make A Difference” and “give men and boys better life chances” by addressing issues such as high suicide rates, sexual abuse and health.

I had no idea when this day was until yesterday morning, when I received 4 photographs from Aidan who lives in Malasia. He is one of Saagar’s close friends and he shared a house with him at Durham. His comment read “Delivering a Mental Health talk to Schlumberger in conjunction with International Men’s day.’

Invaluable, undying friendships.

Here’s another set of friends. Rene’s friends, who are racing across the Atlantic later this month in his memory – Race for Rene. They are raising a huge amount of awareness and funds for 2 charities: PAPYRUS and Child Bereavement UK. They say, “We lost Rene to mental health in 2017. We don’t want anyone else to have to feel what that’s like.” That is a vision worth having.

Here’s a conversation with James, one of Rene’s friends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Aerqfealiwk&feature=emb_title

Good luck to the crew. Here’s to all the men and boys we love:

Thanks for this Mary.

Three friends

This is an approximate transcript of a presentation I made at a TCF (The Compassionate Friends) gathering of bereaved parents earlier this month. The topic was “Finding Hope after Catastrophe”. I hope you find it useful in some way.

“Hello. My name is Sangeeta. I am an Anaesthetist by profession and it’s my job to put people to sleep. Thank you TCF, for having me here this evening.

My son is called Saagar Naresh. I could often hear his cackles emanating from his room. I am pretty sure he’s watching cat videos again. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. He’s as bright as they come, astutely picking up languages, accents and mannerisms of people around him. He would go shopping with his best friend Hugo to Oxford street and they would pretend to be South African tourists all day.

We loved cooking together. It involved chopping of onions. He got tired of his eyes stinging and watering and found a way out – he would wear his swimming goggles whilst chopping onions. It worked brilliantly!

He was an excellent cricketer. A fast bowler to be precise. He also played the drums in a band. He loved to go to the gym. Most of all, he had a heart of gold and even when he was a teenager, he loved cuddles. He spoke French and German fluently and chose to study Arabic from scratch at University as he wanted to challenge himself.

After his second year at Durham University, he came home for the summer holiday and was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. He was unable to go back to pursue his studies as his depression started to deepen. We saw a doctor on the 14th of October 2014. He told us that Saagar would have to wait till his medications kicked in, that he was on the right medicines but they would take time to work. On the 16th of October, Saagar ended his own life.

That was like a bomb going off in our lives. Losing him suddenly, out of the blue was our catastrophe.

Finding hope …

The Oxford dictionary defines Hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”.

For me, Hope is the belief that it is possible that some of the best days in my life are yet to come.

Soon after Saagar passed away, just getting through the day was an achievement. The time ‘yet to come’ was a huge burden. I had nothing left to offer to the world and the one thing I wanted, the world could not offer me. My own mortality stared me squarely in my face and it was strangely seductive.

What was I left with? My logical mind had been turned into an emotional pulp as there was no logic to this. The more I tried to make sense of it, the more I suffered. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. It did not make any sense. Period. Deal with it.

What was I left with?

  1. This moment, right NOW
  2. Me, mySELF.
  3. Nature.

NOW

How deep rooted was my belief that Saagar would always be around? How much did I take that for granted?

What am I taking for granted right now?

My breath.

My parents.

My partner.

My job.

My health.

Let death be your teacher. ‘Right now’ is all I have left. Like a bird trapped in a cage. The door is open but the bird is unable to fly away. The cage is where he/she belongs. In the ‘now’, I could only sit and watch the door, knowing that it was open. I could breathe in, take a pause, breathe out, pause, breathe in and repeat… I could fully acknowledge and feel the dark hollow that was my chest and hear the echoes of my sobs returning from the black hole within. Connecting fully with the present moment was the only way past it. There was no short-cut. No secret escape route. One moment at a time. Now, I am walking upstairs. Now, I am halving cherry tomatoes. Now, I am watching the steam rise from my cup of tea and so on… My refuge lay in this moment, right here. Right now. The future is a story. The past exists in our thoughts. Yet, our mind is in one or the other. What is real is this moment.

I had a patient once who had a black ‘Gratitude’ tattoo on her left forearm in a big bold decorative font. I asked her the story behind it. She said, ”I work with kids with learning disabilities. By the time I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning, I’ve achieved more than they can. So, I am grateful every moment.”

SELF

I was lucky to have so much support at that impossible time. My mum and brother came over from India to be with me. My friends, Saagar’s friends, their parents, my work colleagues. Everyone stood by me with love and compassion but ultimately it was up to me to live with this utter devastation. I was filled with so many questions, so much guilt and grief that I felt like I was drowning. 

It took 2-3 years but slowly I taught myself to be kind to myself. I am still teaching and reminding myself that our everyday reality is made up of stuff that is unthinkable for most people. We live the life that is other’s worst nightmare. Many can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in our shoes. 

So, we need to honour ourselves for carrying on living with as much grace and dignity as possible after having absorbed the impact of such a huge catastrophe. To know that the harsh inner critic will continue to chatter but we need to witness its mumbling, recognise the pointlessness of it and let it go.

We need to have compassion for ourselves. Compassion being not just a gentle kind feeling but small acts of courage. For instance, I used to love dangly ear-rings ‘before’. I would change them every day, to match my clothes. But for 3 years ‘after’ I didn’t change out of the boring old gold studs. One day I decided to change into one of my favourite pair of ear-rings for no particular reason. It was a small shift. It took courage. I cried. But it was an act of kindness towards myself. I needed my own friendship, my own affection. I needed to once again find ways of being at ease with myself. Lord Buddha has said “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

I am learning that I need to be a ‘compassionate friend’ to myself.

NATURE

That wretched day in the middle of October was cursed but also resplendent with autumn colours. It was a festival of orange, ochre, red, green, yellow and terracotta. These decorative leaves carpeted our street. I stared out of the window watching these leaves gracefully dance their way to the ground. The trees went from being semi-nude to naked. This was the cycle of life. Nature was reminding me and showing me the devastating beauty of life. Cycles upon cycles of change, millions of times over. The impermanence of everything.

Over the next few months, I sat gazing at the Himalayan mountain range, marvelling at its history and all the changes it has undergone. I sat on a beach in Goa, watching the ocean waves change every second. Over time, I started to allow Nature to teach me what I needed to learn and soothe me when I needed to be soothed. I learnt that we humans can carry the utter tyranny of life in one hand while simultaneously carrying the spectacular beauty of it in the other.

I requested everyone to join me in singing this song by ABBA and was delighted by the upward shift of healing energy in the room as everyone sang together. It was a powerfully uplifting evening.

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help…”

Emergency Numbers

Earlier this year, at a Medical school in North India I spoke to staff and students about the stigma and ignorance around Mental Health. At the end of the lecture one of the senior faculty members asked me a question, “Is it helpful for people with a mental illness to be a part of a religious community?”

‘Yes’, I said. ‘Most certainly. Just like it is helpful for someone with Diabetes to be part of a religious community. It might also be a good idea for them to see a doctor.’

Earlier that day Si and I had taken a walk around the hospital and found this list of ‘Emergency Numbers’ prominently displayed on a notice board in the medical library for medical students, nursing students, dentists and doctors.

Need I say any more?  

PS: It is important for every student in every educational organisation to have ready access to reliable and knowledgeable resources if they feel the need to discuss their thoughts and feelings or are concerned about a friend.

Treatment versus Care

It was a clean, warm and open space with well-designed floral furniture in pastel blues and greens. It had plenty of natural light and pots of healthy looking plants thoughtfully dotted around the floor. The artwork on the walls was selected by someone who knew their stuff. It would be hard to guess that this was the entrance to the New Hampshire Hospital. which provides acute inpatient psychiatric services for all age groups.

As I was guided through the facility, I was enamoured by a lush beautiful big greenhouse, two well-stocked libraries, a massive gym for staff and patients, 3 cafés, an outdoor patio and play area for kids, a vegetable patch, a healthy colourful aquarium on wheels, loads of Halloween decorations all around, an art workshop and cooking class in progress, television screens, a chapel, a small shop, a pool table, a ping-pong table, lots of board games and cheerful group therapy, treatment and visitor’s rooms.

Each kid had a room to himself or herself with nice bed-linen of their choice. 2 adults often shared a room. The age groups were appropriately separated. The youngest patient there was 6 years old and the oldest a septuagenarian. The nurse’s station was not a demarcated area. It was part of the ward layout. Social workers, occupational therapists, doctors and nurses didn’t wear any uniforms. They were dressed in everyday clothes. Everyone spoke softly and the atmosphere was relaxed and caring.

The most impressive part of the service was the presence of an Aftercare Liaison officer. It is well known that patients are at the highest risk within 30 days of discharge from inpatient services or Emergency department. (Ref: Luxton, June and Comtois 2013) They concluded that repeated follow-up contacts appear to reduce suicidal behaviour.

Aside from following up on these patients, the Aftercare Liaison Officer has the following roles before the patient is discharged:

  1. Speaks, listens and connects to each child and adolescent patient. Educates them and their support system about warning signs of suicide, triggers, risk factors, protective factors and restriction of means of self-injury.
  2. Draws up a detailed Safety Plan with them and their carers.
  3. Helps them identify sources of social support (trusted adults) and develop personal resources through open conversations.
  4. Interface with other professional agencies (eg. for DBT) and community services that will help dilute their identity as a person diagnosed with a Mental Illness. For example, they match their interests to activities such as therapeutic horsemanship, a running group or a Mountain Teen Project.
  5. Engage their parents, families and friends and anyone they would like to involve.
  6. Use technology if possible – MY3App.

I don’t think we have this service in the UK. I know we don’t.

The one thing that is most important to me and worth living for is … to continually express my love for Saagar and help other parents do the same for their kids.

Come October

3/10/2019. 6 am: I am excited. At the airport, waiting to board my flight to Washington Dulles. Change to another flight to Manchester and then a taxi ride to Concord, New Hampshire. This is the first leg of my travels as a Churchill Fellow. I have checked in and am having a cup of tea. I have just come across this post from a young woman on Facebook:

“According to my local crisis team, I was ‘too articulate’ to be feeling suicidal.
As a writer, and someone who works in languages, I am a naturally very articulate person. Because I could speak so clearly about my thoughts and feelings, I was discharged from the crisis team as I didn’t fit the bill of someone suicidal, or indeed, of being mentally unwell enough to need their support despite evidence to the contrary.

The Papyrus text line allowed me to articulate how I felt (you don’t have any choice really when you’re using the text service, you have to ‘say’ it how it is!!), and that was delved into so much deeper with thoughtful questions, suggestions and recommendations that allowed me to get through a real low point and see that there was hope. At no stage did they reply with ‘sorry, you’re too articulate to be feeling the way you claim’.

Non-judgemental, kind, compassionate, a REAL life saver, especially in the current climate of NHS mental health cuts.”

Judgement. The ultimate wall. Even a positive judgement can be harmful. A missed opportunity. A lost life. Who fills the gaping holes created by ‘unfit for purpose’ services, NHS cuts and ignored carers?

Charities. Families. Friends.

The needs of young people are different. They need an active, positive and creative interaction to make sense of how they feel. They need to be heard and understood. They need to know in their hearts that they are deeply loved and cared for just the way they are. They need to know that things get better. Educating families is crucial.

4/10/2019

Today’s gem: Mayo Clinic video for parents. All parents of adolescents should see this.

Convenient myths.

On a few occasions, after I’ve shared the story of Saagar’s brief illness and sudden death in public, one or two individuals, often men, who’ve possibly been through their own difficulties, have said that there was nothing I or anyone could have done to stop him. I know they mean well and speak from experience. I appreciate them reaching out to me.

For a few microseconds, on rare occasions, I have told myself that may be it’s true that Saagar’s death was not preventable. I have felt my shoulders relax, my tummy unknot and my mind quieten.

Life would be so much easier if I could believe/ accept/ give in to the concept that no matter what, Saagar’s death was inevitable. That the planets were misaligned and his demons got the better of him. That this was his destiny and it was ‘written’ in the balance sheet of his karma. Life would be easy if I could be complete with the fact that many people with depression/ Bipolar/ other mental illnesses will die young. Sometimes within 10 weeks of their diagnosis. What if I changed my outlook so I could have peace?

What if 3 decades ago everyone accepted that people who got AIDS would be dead within a few months or years. And then nothing more was done about it. That’s just the way it was and that’s how it would stay. Would we reach the stage where we are today, where thousands of individuals lead near normal lives for decades on regular medication, where HIV is not passed on from a carrier to another if the former’s viral load is sufficiently low.

Today, in the UK, cancer care is excellent and cancer research is huge. Anyone who gets diagnosed with cancer can be sure to get prompt and high quality specialist care for as long as needed. So much so that if a child is diagnosed with cancer, the parents automatically get assigned a therapist. We have come a long way.

On the other hand, if a child or an adolescent gets a mental illness, the patient can barely get the attention they need. Never mind the parents. It can hardly be a co-incidence that all the bereaved parents I meet are certain that more could’ve been done to help their child. Not all of them are deluded. Or are they?

Here’s Robert and Linda’s story. They sadly lost their talented young son Richard Wade. They too believe his death was preventable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FofR47rM1BQ

The more we ‘accept’ that these young deaths are inevitable (as the myth goes) the more we keep quiet, the less likely it is that things will change. Accepting might be the wiser thing to do. It might be better for our mind but it may also contribute to future deaths. The easy road may be the wrong road.

We’ve reached 41% of the funds we need to complete the film, 1000 days. Please help us release this film so we can bust some of the myths that surround suicide and bring this subject into society’s consciousness.

Click on: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/1000-days

A big fat THANKS to all of you for being a constant source of strength for me.