On the 9th of March, I reached Melbourne for the second leg of the Churchill Fellowship. I had been looking forward to it for ages and just couldn’t wait to get started. I had the taken the whole month off. Despite the long journey I didn’t feel any fatigue. My AirBnB was homely and comfortable. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for work.
The Beyond Blue Office was easy to find. After a brief introduction to the team, we all went out to get coffee together. I was already one of them and the coffee was great. The following days flew past with meetings, interviews, presentations and briefings. A trip to Headspace. Despite some background murmurings of a virus, I was having the best time, learning and exchanging thoughts and ideas. Then Australia closed its borders. Meetings and conferences started getting cancelled.
On the 16th, I took a return flight to London. My trip shrank from 3 weeks down to one. I had to miss Sydney altogether. Now, I am back here with a blank diary for 2 weeks and I am loving it. I have volunteered myself to work and I am on standby.
I can now research and look up things I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I can clear out one cupboard every day and get rid of stuff I don’t need or use or get joy from. Unclutter and create space in my house and my head. I can go to bed without setting an alarm. That pile of unread books that’s been sitting atop my table, feeling ignored and giving me dirty looks, can now be tackled.
Part of me is rushing in to fill the time with a list of a hundred things to do but I am consciously slowing down. Having an easy routine. Fitting in things I love doing, like arranging flowers. Making time for friends. Cooking. Walking. Not getting hooked to the media but keeping an eye. Writing hand-written letters to loved ones. Sitting still. Enjoying our home. Truly appreciating the weirdness of our cat, Milkshake. Cherishing having breakfast, lunch and dinner with Si as he works from home.
12 days ago I left my home and husband with a strange sense of ‘last-ness’. Si and I are familiar with that uncomfortable feeling. We know that the whole world can change in one second. 12 days is a long time.
Melbourne, Australia, was my final destination when I left home to complete my Churchill fellowship. On the way, I broke my journey for a week in India. I find it impossible to fly over India to go to other places without stopping. There, I watched in horror how much India’s centre has moved to the right. It has gone so far that the words ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are now bad words. My closest friend there is a Muslim gentleman whom I have known for the last 23 years and have never thought of him as a Muslim. But now I fear for his safety. I fear for the safety of all my family as I know that when there is fire, some are damaged by flames but many more by smoke.
So, here I am, in Melboune, at a house, rented through AirBnB and so much has happened in these 12 days. I have never understood the need for 24-hour News Channels as they endlessly repeat themselves, induce panic and heighten pre-existing anxieties. Many people are petrified. They are understandably worried about themselves and their loved ones. The restrictions being imposed are causing more isolation and angst. Italian prison scenario is a very sad example.
This is a good time to observe the effect news has on you, pay attention to your feelings and take a break when you need to, from the constant ranting of various media. I am doing that. I am keeping myself informed, connected and calm. I am not willing to allow the situation to affect my mind too much. I am taking all the precautions as advised and that is the best I can do. WHO sensibly says let’s look after our bodies and minds.
I suspect that death rates from this virus are being hugely exaggerated. They are based on projections from those who have been tested, but many people, all over the world have had a cold or flu over Jan and Feb and have not been tested. So, where does the truth lie?
When I speak with gatherings of doctors, I often start with asking them to shout out whether they think the statements below are True or False. What do you think?
Sick doctors know when they are sick.
Doctors are good at asking for help and following advice.
Doctors take good care of themselves.
Doctors have strong support networks.
Doctors are kind to each other.
Irrespective of which country I am in, without fail the auditoria flood up with a big resounding ‘FALSE’ for each of the above, accompanied with some sniggering. Isn’t it shocking? One would expect that people who work in ‘healthcare’ would know a thing or two about their own health as individuals and as a community.
These are the highlights of a survey conducted by the Royal College of Anaesthetists in 2016-17:
The NHS Sickness statistics consistently show that NHS hospital doctors have the lowest rate of sick leave as compared to any other staff group. Here is a list of personality traits of doctors (a broad generalization, of course) that might explain this:
Perfectionism (I must do this right!)
Narcissism (I am good at what I do.)
Compulsiveness (I can’t give up till I finish.)
Denigration of vulnerabilities (If I need help, I am weak.)
Martyrdom (I care for my patients more than myself. Their needs come before mine.)
The very traits that make us good doctors are the ones that may not be very good for us. But our seniors have not been aware of this and hence they have not been able to help us understand ourselves. This tradition has been going on for generations of doctors. There is a nobility associated with such self-sacrifice, which we all have bought into. The fact is that if your own cup is empty, you cannot serve others well.
Things add up – a dysfunctional department, work pressures, lack of support outside work, ill-health, emotional burden of the job, a traumatic adverse incident, lack of sleep, fatigue, a complaint made against you, poor diet and no time to exercise or pursue hobbies, impaired judgement of one’s own symptoms, fear of letting others down, difficulty in admitting that they have a problem.
Burnout among medics is not unusual. It looks much like depression and sometimes ends in devastating tragedies. But help is available. Sadly, unlike other illnesses, for mental health issues, the onus of getting help lies with the sufferer. It takes courage to acknowledge one needs help and seek it out in good time. It might be the best thing a doctor can do for themselves and their patients.
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.
Suicide by mental health in-patients continues to fall, most clearly in England where the decrease has been around 60% during 2004-14. This fall began with the removal of ligature points to prevent deaths by hanging but has been seen in suicides on and off the ward and by all methods. Despite this success, there were 76 suicides by in-patients in the UK in 2014, including 62 in England.
Suicides after discharge:
The first three months after hospital discharge continue to be a period of high suicide risk. In England the number of deaths rose to 200 in 2014 after a fall in the previous year. Risk is highest in the first two weeks post-discharge: in a previous study we have shown that these deaths are associated with preceding admissions lasting less than 7 days and lack of care planning. There has been a fall in post-discharge deaths occurring before first service contact, suggesting recognition of the need for early follow-up. In all there were around 460 patient suicides in acute care settings – in-patient and post-discharge care and crisis teams – in the UK in 2014.
First of all I want to say that every suicide is a huge tragedy and must be prevented at all costs. Behind each of these numbers are precious lives and beautiful people. I don’t allow myself to forget that even when I am angry. This blog is a mere observation on how I have seen politics being played in front of my eyes in the last week. In light of the above findings, in consultation with his expert advisors and in all his wisdom, Mr Jeremy Hunt has decided to focus his attention on in-patient deaths – a group that is manned by the most highly trained professionals in a very controlled environment, a group that is on the list of ‘never-events’, a group that has already shown a decrease by 60%, a group where even a small reduction in numbers will amount to a big percentage and will make him look good.
With all good intentions, he has converted a healthy aspiration of Zero-suicide in the community to an unhealthy target for in-patients creating huge anxieties. Last week at the NSPA conference I heard Mr Hunt speak in the most self-congratulatory of tones about how wonderful it is that UK is the first country to legislate for ‘Parity of Esteem’. I am sorry Sir, that means nothing on the ground. The workforce coming in contact with the majority of suicidal people in the UK is largely untrained. They don’t even know how to talk with them, let alone ‘look-after’ them. The massive funding cuts focus on mental health which in turn results in poor training of junior doctors. When questioned directly about ‘parity of training’, he masterfully slips and slides away.
Last September I started writing a case study on patient safety for an academic paper. For every sentence, it required evidence. Unfortunately, the level of evidence for some of the material is not high because of the nature of the subject. Secondly, research in mental illness is poorly funded in the UK.
I am reminded of a young friend who is looking for a job but she can’t find one as they require her to have experience which she cannot gain unless she has a job. A classic chicken and egg situation.
So, the deadline has been extended time and again and finally we are going to have another attempt at submitting it before the end of this month. The lowest level of evidence to be found is Level 5 – ‘Case series or studies with no control’.
Here is one that I am going to use to support my statement: “Almost everyone who is suicidal is ambivalent. They don’t necessarily want to die. They just want the pain to end.” Hopefully it will be accepted.
Kevin Hines is one of less than 1% of people to survive a jump from the Golden Gate bridge in a suicidal attempt. He is now a mental health advocate and works actively towards suicide prevention.
“The millisecond my hands left that rail, I thought, ‘what have I just done? I don’t want to die, God please save me’, and then I hit the water,” he said.
“You fall four seconds, you hit the water and get vacuum sucked down 70 or 80 ft – when I opened my eyes I was alive. “All I desperately wanted to do was survive – suicide experts call this being ‘shocked into reality’.”
Health and social care, care of the elderly, care homes, care in the community, child care, nursing care, residential care, respite care … The word ‘care’ is used everywhere but what does it mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as ‘the process of protecting someone or something and providing what that person or thing needs’ and ‘serious attention, especially to the details of a situation or thing’.
Medicine and nursing are caring vocations. Yet, they are jobs like any other. They pay a salary for a service rendered. The care element can potentially become optional as long as all the boxes are ticked.
‘Continuity of care’ is particularly tricky in mental health as relationships are based on trust and every time a new person takes over a caring role, all the facts need to be repeated and trust re-established, starting from scratch.
Now that I belong to a network of mothers and fathers who have lost their children to suicide, one common theme emerges: “It seems that our sons and daughters didn’t need more resources, more GP’s or more psychiatrists or more nurses. They just needed more care…”