I’m interrupting the promised flow of my recovery story to write a piece for a really important campaign. It’s being led by Lisa Rodrigues, a former chief executive within the NHS, and it’s all about challenging the mental health stigma that still exists within our health service. Lisa talks here about her own experiences, and how we know that there is still more work to do on this stigma: http://changeday.nhs.uk/story25 One element of the campaign encourages NHS staff who have experienced mental illness to speak about their own experiences, as Lisa has done, to reduce the sense of “them” and “us”. This is something that I’ve recently done myself, and I know how daunting it can be to take that risk of removing the professional mask and exposing your personal struggles. However I’ve found it a really cathartic and enlightening experience, and I hope that many other NHS staff will find the courage and the support they need to empower them to talk about their own experiences.
As I’ve mentioned in my other blog posts, as well as being a survivor of postpartum psychosis I work in mental health services within the NHS. Before, during and since my episodes of mental illness I’ve held positions of responsibility and leadership, both within my original profession of occupational therapy, and now as a programme manager within a transformation team. In the 11 years since I was first unwell I haven’t set out to hide my illness from colleagues, but I’ve only mentioned it when it seemed to be relevant to do so. This was often as an example of how recovery is possible, or to enlighten colleagues about how a “real patient” can feel about things. On these occasions I’ve observed the surprise of colleagues when I’ve first mentioned that I’ve recovered from a psychotic illness. Although they tried to hide their shock I’ve noticed that learning this new information about me often appeared to confuse them, as it challenged their “them” and “us” notions of staff being somehow different to patients. I don’t think badly of those colleagues for their reaction, as I know I’d have very likely reacted the same in my own past, when I was a mental health professional yet to have my own “lived experience.” For many who have worked in mental health services for a good few years the realisation that people who have suffered a mental illness can achieve career success, raise a family, and live happy fulfilled lives remains relatively new. I think my experiences reminded colleagues of that in a very poignant way, and I hope it reminded them to always give hope of recovery to their patients. For those colleagues in more corporate NHS positions, without a clinical background in mental health, I think my occasional revelations challenged misconceptions and stigma in an even more fundamental way, leading to some positive changes in language and attitude, all small but meaningful steps on the journey toward culture change.
Last year, partly due to reading Lisa Rodrigues’ inspiring story of talking about her own experiences when in a very senior NHS role, I decided to “come out” at work more widely. I was lucky enough to get great support from colleagues in the communications team of my trust, who listened to my story, wrote it up in journalistic style and allowed me to launch it via a guest editor slot on the weekly all staff email. Was I nervous about it and was it traumatic to relive things? Oh yes, I did experience anxiety during the process, and I cried about some of the painful memories that were evoked by re-telling and then reading my own story. But it was a case of “feel the fear and do it anyway” because I’d made a definitive decision that the story had to be told, and that I was at the right stage of my own recovery to be truly open. The reactions I got to telling the story reinforced that I’d made the right decision. One group, mainly psychiatrists and other clinical staff, thanked me for being brave enough to tell the story, and promised to discuss it in their teams and share it with patients to give them hope. A second type of reaction was along the lines of “wow, you’re so brave to tell your story …I’ve had mental illness too but I’d never tell anybody here, especially my manager…” The perception of “bravery” in telling my story, and others’ fear of telling their own, really reinforced the importance of challenging mental health stigma. I hope that one day, in the not too distant future, sharing experiences of mental ill health won’t be seen as a risky thing to do, bearing potentially negative consequences to one’s career, reputation or social status. That brings me on to the third type of reactions, whereby some colleagues clearly felt very uncomfortable with me telling my story. They didn’t openly say so of course, that would have been very obviously inappropriate and indefensible within the context of our organisation. However the difference between those who were genuinely inspired and supportive, and those who just said positive things because they ought to, was obvious in subtle ways. Perhaps sometime I’ll take the opportunity to discuss the story more with those people and understand their reactions. For now I’m assuming it was a mixture of feeling sorry for me for making revelations that they considered career limiting, suspicion that I’d told my story to excuse myself for any mistakes I made at work, or just that they felt uncomfortable with somebody being so personally open within a professional setting.
I continue to be relieved and proud that I’ve told my story. I’m relieved because I feel I can now always be truly authentic in my interactions at work, openly demonstrating my passion and values to improve mental health services and challenge stigma. Telling the story has lifted the feelings of shame and inadequacy that sometimes drove me to work in ways that didn’t really resonate with that. And I’m proud that in my own small way I’ve made a difference, including starting some conversations in my own organisation about stigma and about how we can support more staff to tell their own stories to make an even bigger difference.
Further to that, as you can see on this website, my experience of telling my story at work spurred me on to start a blog and write my story in my own words, to challenge stigma on a bigger scale and to reach out with hope to other women suffering the illness that I had. It wasn’t something I’d planned or anticipated when I told the story at work, but it’s moved me even further along the road of recovery and helped me, via twitter, to meet some truly inspirational people who are all telling their own stories to tackle stigma and support others.
So, if you’re an NHS staff member with your own mental health experience please do have a think about whether it might be the right time for you too to tell your own story, even if it’s just to one trusted colleague. There are some resources here that might help you to start that conversation: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/talk-about-mental-health/telling-someone-about-your-mental-health-problem. And if you’re an NHS employer, please consider setting up some support within your organisation to help your staff feel safe to tell their stories, because open fear-free conversations can make a huge difference.