Last week we got a call to assess a patient for a possible transfer to ITU. Our team of three anaesthetists went along with all our kit and PPE. From a distance, he didn’t look too unwell. And he looked young. I hoped he wouldn’t need too much intervention. We donned out protective equipment and looking like aliens, entered his cubicle. I checked his name and date of birth. He was born in the same year as Saagar. After making a quick assessment, we decided that his breathing needed support. We spoke to him about getting him off to sleep so that we could place a tube in his wind-pipe and assist his breathing. We explained to him that we would transfer him to ITU for further care.
By this stage he was shaking, his eyes swollen with fear. He asked to make a call to his mum. We stood back while he called her. He held the phone to his left ear while oxygen hissed through his face mask. We waited, watching his face slowly relax, his fear melting into tears that dripped down his cheeks. After what seemed like a long time, he said bye to her, told her he loved her, composed himself and said he was ready to go to sleep.
It was like watching the dance of life and death. Love and separation. Help and helplessness. I was grateful and pleased that this mum and this son could connect at this crucial time.
Saagar didn’t have this luxury. He didn’t get to call his mother. No words of comfort fell into his ears. No tears of relief spilt from his eyes. Nobody offered him their understanding. I felt sorry for his mother too. She didn’t have a chance to say good-bye, to tell him that she loved him, that she would pray for him and that she wished him the very best.
When there is political will, governments can bring countries to a shrieking halt, the world can come to a stand-still.
When it is a physical illness, millions of pounds can be spent in seconds. New hospitals can be erected within weeks. Multiple trainings can be put in place for the front-line staff. Awareness campaigns are everywhere. What to do, what not to do, repeated endlessly. Retired doctors can be redeployed. National economies can be allowed to crash. Everything else can be put on hold.
When it is a mental illness, there isn’t enough money. There isn’t enough time. Not enough people. Very little expertise. No effective awareness-raising campaigns. No appropriate spaces. Not enough beds. Not enough research. The bottom-line is that there just isn’t enough respect for the fact that people with mental angst suffer the same, if not worse than those with physical ailments. That on many occasions they too, die alone.
A bereaved mum’s lament: Went out for dinner with friends. What could go wrong? All went well until there was talk of an acquaintance of one of the guests who is suffering from a debilitating mental illness. They had tried to take their life but survived. The guest herself is a breast cancer survivor. She said that she had visited the person and said “did they not realise how hard she had fought to live and there they were throwing away their life”. Its a shame she didn’t appreciate just how hard the other person was fighting to stay alive … my son lost that fight. When will they realise Depression is as dangerous and potentially fatal as cancer. You know when you are stuck in a situation when its just not appropriate to make a fuss but you want to scream “How ignorant are you ???”
From the individual level, right through the media, the regulatory bodies and up to the government, we are all ignorant. Mrs May speaks of parity between physical and mental illnesses, ie. both being given the same importance. Many others have talked about it before her but we are miles away from it.
The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa was a public health emergency of international concern and we heard about it everyday, non-stop on the radio and TV from 2014-2016. 1 person was infected with the virus in the UK and fortunately there were no deaths from it. 1 person dies every 2 hours by suicide but it is not mentioned in the media. Public health England are not particularly concerned. Suicide claims 4 young lives every day but it’s no big deal.
Imagine a middle aged man presenting to his doctor with severe chest pain and being sent home with pills that take 3 weeks to work. I am sure the GMC would have something to say about that. A young man presents to his doctor with debilitating depression together with a strong desire to end his life and he is sent home with pills that can potentially make suicidal ideation worse and the benefit, if any might be seen in 3 weeks. The GMC finds that acceptable practice.
1 in 4 patients present with a mental illness to the NHS and only 10-12 % of the NHS budget is spent on mental health.
Survivors of physical illnesses proudly claim bravery and wear their survival as a badge of honour whereas those surviving mental illness hide in corners feeling ashamed.
The acceptable faces of mental illness are Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This is apparent from the t-shirts worn at charity events, walks and runs. I hardly see anyone running in support of Bipolar Disorder research or British Schizophrenia Foundation or Borderline Personality Disorder Charity.
Things most resistant to change are cultures and mindsets.
Parity of esteem?
We have aeons to go!!!