Reflections of a Burnt Out Revolutionary

I write from my room in a mental health unit. After many years of bleeding my often harrowing experiences in the health, social care and housing services all over the walls of conference halls and training rooms I find myself depleted of resources both physical, mental, and spiritual. I feel my skin has been sandpapered off very very slowly until finally I am left with my organs barely held together with a wafer-thin membrane. I was very close to taking my life last week. I do not say this lightly.

Why did I bother to give 100% of my mind and soul to trying to improve the culture of our NHS? You may well ask. In truth, it is now twenty years since I was diagnosed with PTSD and ended up homeless and hopeless, as described in other blogs. Using my experiences in the hope that no-one else ends up there has never been a “job” for me. I have had a single-minded and utterly sincere belief in the adage that the truth shall set us free.

I was prepared to traumatise myself over and over like the proverbial boot stamping on a face forever, if one, just one, person might go on to work differently as a result of what I told them.

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I fought hard against the commodification of qualities like Empathy and Compassion and the dilution and co-option of concepts in which I firmly believe, such as Patient Leadership and Co-production.

It is only now in hindsight, sitting on a ward after a serious bout of suicidal despair at being next to destitute despite all that I have given particularly to the NHS, that I realise I was commoditised and co-opted myself. In return for what I hoped would lead to a level of security ie a “real” job, I allowed NHS England to silence me to some extent, to dilute what I believe and what I have to say. That failed of course, and I now meet the consequences.

I am far from out of the woods regarding my health and the spectre of homelessness is always present. I am tired on what feels like a cellular level, let down and heartbroken.

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For this reason, I have decided to blog my thoughts on these issues now. I am not sure whether I will get through this particularly dark patch and there are things I do not wish left unsaid..

There are words galore on the subject of involving patients/families/citizens. We are an “untapped resource”. There is a “power shift”.  We are being “put” at the centre.

Simon Stevens, at the time of writing Head of NHS England, wrote this in the Five Year Forward View:

More broadly, we need to engage with communities and citizens in new ways, involving them directly in decisions about the future of health and care services”.

“None of these initiatives and commitments by themselves will be the difference between success and failure over the next five years. But collectively and cumulatively they and others like them will help shift power to patients and citizens, strengthen communities, improve health and wellbeing, and—as a by-product—help moderate rising demands on the NHS”.

Fine words, but is this revolutionary, new or even at all meaningful?

Discussion on the changing relationship between patients and the health and care system has been going on since before I was born. In 1964 journalist Gerda Cohen wrote in What’s Wrong with Hospitals “patients are becoming impatient of being treated like chipped flowerpots in for repair”.

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Even more tellingly, she wrote extensively in this book, about her observations of a psychiatric ward. In those days of course long-term, if not permanent, admissions were the norm. I very often use this quote from the book in my presentations:

“Self government by the patients must involve pretence because as soon as they encroach on real power, they are brought up short”.

Again, remember this was in 1964 and my feeling is apart from in some isolated cases, this remains true today.

At the time Cohen was making her observations known and for some considerable time afterwards the Medical Model prevailed and to a large extent still does albeit with a veneer that might suggest otherwise. In the Medical Model, the healthcare professional is the expert in control and the patient is there to be ‘fixed’ like that broken flowerpot. Interactions tend to be one way with the health care professional telling us what needs to be done. The focus is on diagnostic labels and finding a box in which to slot the “problem”.

So many of us have more than one health issue going on at once funnily enough. Right now for example, an extended period of extreme work-related stress has led to depression, anxiety, a recurrence of my childhood epilepsy with grand mal seizures, chronic back and leg pain and the discovery while all of this was being investigated of a large growth in my uterus. I am unable to work and so poverty and sheer terror at the possibility of being unable to sustain myself and my cat has further added to the mental health symptoms. I am at separate clinics for each of these issues. I found out that the Pain Clinic was unable, on discovering the growth, to refer me directly to Gynaecology in the same hospital but it all had to go through my GP. The GP surgery could not refer me without seeing me. I was however by this time an inpatient in hospital in another part of town due to bed shortages in my own area. I have had to wait to be transferred back to my Borough, feel well enough to go to the GP surgery in order to set in motion the referral back to the same hospital. That process when I eventually dragged myself to the GP, took roughly two minutes. I was also advised that the Pain Management clinic had no ability to liaise directly with my mental health team. Surely the two issues are linked and impact on one another?

Don’t talk to me about “integrated” or “coordinated” care. These are fine words once again, but the reality of my current experience is very different. Each symptom is treated individually by different healthcare professionals working in separate silos with little or no collaboration with those in other departments.

Bull Silo

Who has the genuine “helicopter view” over this fragmented, landmine-strewn landscape? The patients and their families of course. We have to find ways to negotiate our way through the maze when we are often at our most vulnerable. We patients know to our cost that this narrow, fragmented approach is at best frustrating, at worst actively damaging. Many never make it out of the maze. I sense their spirits are still trapped there, desperately trying to find the way to the centre or to the exit.

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And despite all our efforts, those of us passionate or mad enough to push for real change for no personal reward, largely remain recipients of “care” rather than truly equal partners.

This is certainly true in Mental Health. My current experience involves being ignored, negated and not even worthy of being asked directly what my name is. Despite standing right next to a nurse, she leaned across to a colleague, stabbed her pen in my direction and said “what is HER name?”. I already feel like an utter failure for ending up here again.. This sort of thing may seem minor but makes me feel subhuman. It feels like a different planet to the world I occupied when I had a contract with NHS Horizons when we blithered endlessly about rocking boats, being pirates, not following rules etc ad nauseum. Let me take you by the hand, Chief Transformation Officer, and I will lead you to the front line of an acute mental health ward….

Patients have not taken this paternalistic attitude lying down. Already in the 1960s, at individual and collective levels, patients were starting to demand more control over their own treatment and have a genuine influence in the development of the services which they used.  The first patient groups were forming and the notion of the patient as something other than a passive recipient of care began to emerge.

Largely this development seemed to have been welcomed but with some trepidation. In a debate on “Hospital and Patient Welfare” in the House of Commons in 1964, the MP for Abertillery the Rt Hon Rev Llewellyn Williams despite declaring himself suspicious of the new patient organisations as a potential refuge for “chronic bellyachers”, he does however go on to state:

What concerns me is the question of human relationships. This is the nub of the matter. In the post-war period we have witnessed incredible medical technological advances. Surgical skill seems to go from one new wonderful discovery to greater discovery still. We have discovered drugs which are indeed miracle-working. One would wish that there were a comparable advance in human relationships”

Policy since then has gradually seen the reframing at least in terms of rhetoric of the role of the relationship between the patient and the wider healthcare system – from the NHS and Community Care Act of 1990 where the formal requirement to engage and consult was first established to more recent Policy such as the Berwick Review which recommended that:

“Patients and their carers should be present, powerful and involved at all levels of healthcare organisations from wards to the boards of Trusts”.

Once again, fine words indeed…and there’s an endless stream of them it would seem.

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Here’s an example from Think Tank Land. In its 2014 paper on Collective Leadership for example, the Kings Fund recommends:

Organisations such as the centre for Patient Leadership also stress the importance of seeing patient leaders as a resource for change in health and social care organisations. Much like multidisciplinary team-working, collective leadership with patients would require a redistribution of power and decision-making along with a shift in thinking about who is included in the collective leadership community”.

All well and good, but having been an Associate at the Kings Fund, my observation is that behind the glossy facade there festers a culture that is as hierarchical, and toxic as the worst parts of the NHS. There IS no “collective leadership community” there. This is a nice soundbite to describe a fantasy world.

Formal policy leaves us in no doubt that we are “putting the patient at the centre”. This statement in itself is riddled with power imbalance. “We” ie the professionals, on “our” ie the professionals’, terms, will “put” the patient at the centre. When I hear that, I see myself as a pawn being placed on a chess board by some giant in a suit. I am never the Queen, just the pawn.

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Traditional Patient and Public Involvement, still largely based on collection of data and feedback, and at best having a token pawn or two on a Committee, more often than not, stops short of sharing power at strategic levels. Advances in digital technology and Social Media have already changed fundamentally the nature of how we patients interact with the health and care system and outdated systems for formal Patient and Public Involvement are falling more and more behind the pace of change.

As it states in the Five Year Forward View:

“We have not fully harnessed the renewable energy represented by patients and communities”.

There are yet more fine words which do not stand up to close scrutiny. The energy of patients and carers is not infinitely renewable. We are a finite resource that that risks depletion through ineffective, wasteful and tokenistic use.  Simply repeating declarations that we need to involve patients and carers in new ways with no indication of how this is to happen, in a glossy policy document or declared loudly from the platform of a glitzy conference, is not enough. I have waited for real action in this for years now. My head is bashed out of shape from its frequent collisions with brick walls. I am not sure I wish to continue to water dead flowers.

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The words of the Reverend Llewellyn Williams from 1964 ring equally true today with the added urgency from the NHS increasingly struggling to do more with a great deal less. Relationships remain at the heart of the matter, and the key to fostering sustainable working relationships is collaborative and partnership working in which power is genuinely shared at all levels including and in indeed, in particular, at Board level where the strategic decisions are made.  

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But where are we at Board level? By that, I mean having equal say in decisions, not just a “patient story” as the after lunch “inspirational” slot to wake everyone up after too much corporate buffet.

There is a smattering of Patient Director posts pioneered by courageous trailblazers like David Gilbert, but that is about it in terms of having an equal say in decisions at the most senior levels. This is a wasted opportunity. It limits vision.

Why do they fear our presence at these levels? Is it that they themselves have Imposter Syndrome? Is it simply that they have fought tooth and nail with much fur flying to get hold of power and are mighty unwilling to cede any of it especially God forbid, to a patient?  

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One Trust clearly fears patients to the extent that their CEO had the bright idea of having a red chair in the Board Room to remind people of the importance of “the patient”. These invisible patients are ideal. They are guaranteed not to cause trouble or ask any awkward questions. It struck me there may be a market for flatpack patients to cover all engagement needs. There could be supplements for the so-called “hard to reach” and a Premium service that would also take into account the need for diversity.

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Where does the much misunderstood term “Co-production” fit into this? Co-production is often considered a synonym for patient/service user involvement. The reason for this is that the system tends to co-opt and dilute more radical concepts in order perhaps to be able to slot them into existing structures which can SOUND radical but in fact be rendered “safe”,  and less challenging than the business of actually transforming existing structures and systems.

In The Challenge of Co-production, the New Economics Foundation defines it as follows:

“Co-production means delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. Where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change” 

The key words are “equal” “reciprocal” and “agents of change”. It is not a synonym for public engagement, service user/patient involvement or consultation. It is not just allowing people a say in decisions about themselves individually or collectively, and above all it is not something which retains power in the hands of professionals with the patient or service user brought in at a later stage. Do you believe you are “doing” co-production? If so can you honestly say that it sits on the two way street of reciprocity, that there is true equality, and the patients/carers/citizens involved are truly able to effect change on their terms?

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The term Co-production was first coined by Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University. The key finding in her work in the criminal justice system in Chicago was that public services were shown to work best when designed and run by a combination of professional expertise and community insight. Ostrom’s work divides participation into individual and collective levels.  This is very relevant to health care. We can participate as individuals in terms of how we reclaiming power over our own health and in sharing decisions with professionals, but we can also link up with others either with similar issues or set of values to participate on a wider level in order to create the social movement that is mentioned in the Five Year Forward view.

Co-production was taken further by Professor Edgar Cahn, a US civil rights lawyer and speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, who suffered a massive coronary at 45. Time spent pondering in his hospital bed upon the resulting apparent loss of self and achievements before he was ill. He used this time well as he went on to found the Time Banking movement – the practical means whereby those declared useless by society for whatever reason are now valued for their assets, skills and life experience.

I read his seminal work “No More Throwaway People” and it immediately resonated, particularly regarding the feeling that his heart attack seemed to rob him of more than just his health.

“I didn’t like feeling useless. My idea of who I was – the “me” that I valued – was someone who could be special for others, who could do something they needed. And here I was, a passive recipient of everyone else’s help” (Cahn, 2000)

I have long observed that the power-holders can far more readily accept the idea of patients as individuals “taking responsibility” for their own health wrapped up in the pretty gift wrap of “self-management” but not quite so keen on the idea of collective influence, of strength in numbers, of a genuine social movement that is as social movements should be – inspired, mobilised, developed and led by the citizens themselves. Social Movements are just “FAB” as long as they are run by the officially endorsed Tranformistas, bureaucratised and stripped of any energy, fire and challenge which might just run the risk of the Bastille actually being stormed.

Cahn describes himself as a Hellraiser, and as such co-production has a major hellraising element. He described me as a Hellraiser when I was lucky enough to meet him. I take this to mean the definition of an Activist by Eve Ensler.

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We are out there, both inside and outside the NHS. Despite its claims to the contrary the NHS remains firmly based on Command and Control. The culture I have noted from my time working within national NHS bodies, is the antithesis of that advocated by Ensler, Cahn and countless others. There is a deep-seated fear of genuine activism that might just shake up the status quo and every effort is made to create pseudo-activists by such initiatives as the School for Healthcare Radicals. Real radicals do not need to be taught. Real radicals do not need a badge to proclaim themselves rebels. Real radicals who really do rock boats in their drive to challenge injustice and “make it better” run the risk of ending up like me – burnt out, chewed up and thrown on a corporate slagheap.

I will conclude this reflective piece with the words of Edgar Cahn, a man who would run a mile from wearing an “I am a radical” badge. His actions speak louder than empty words.

“We will be unable to create the core economy of the future so long as we live in a bifurcated world where all social problems are relegated either to paid professionals or to volunteers whose role is typically restricted to functioning as free labour within the silos of the non-profit world.

It will take massive labour of all kinds by all to build the core economy of the future – an economy based on relationships and mutuality, on trust and engagement, on speaking and listening and caring – and above all on authentic respect. We will not get there simply by expanding an entitlement system that apportions public benefits based on negatives and deficiencies: what one lacks, what disability one has, what misfortune one has suffered….Finally, because time banking and co-production grow out of my life and work in the civil rights movement, I have to add that hell-raising is a critical part of co-production and of the labour that it entails and must value. Those with wealth, power, authority and credentials hold those assets as stewards for those who came before and in trust for those yet unborn.” 

 

As for me. Was it worth it? Right now, I just do not know the answer….

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22 thoughts on “Reflections of a Burnt Out Revolutionary

  1. As ever brave and courageous blog from Ally which is a must read from ward to the board. Hopefully NHSE board will embrace Patient Stories at their board meetings given the size of the commissioning budget they hold yet they seem not to be directly influenced by the Francis Inquiry recommendations with respect to hearing the voices of those who NHSE commission on behalf of.
    Ally keep safe

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My my, what a beautiful blog and writing! I am becoming a quote thief from especially your blog!
    This one here is so true: “And despite all our efforts, those of us passionate or mad enough to push for real change for no personal reward, we largely remain recipients of “care” rather than truly equal partners.”

    I have given up the illusion that even in our passion, integrity, true care etc. we become equal partners. It was never like this, it isn’t like this and will never be like this, as people are fundamentally selfish. It is too easy to only think about #1 all the time.

    But having said that, it’s still important to counter the bull-crap from those who are too comfortable at the top, otherwise it would be even worse. I often think what is the legacy we leave behind? I may have a lonely funeral, but knowing that some of the things to push for real change will echo in years to come.

    Thanks for your “push”. I hope you get to a good place soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel a lot like you’re describing right now after nearly collapsing at work yesterday from the strain of my own recent experience fighting another abusive system (and knowing even a “victory” is only a pyrrhic one in a system that corrupt…)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant.

    A key feature of Ostrom and Cahn’s models is the *value* of the activity of individuals – citizens, patients, people. The value isn’t nominal, it’s real – because it makes people’s lives better. It’s not necessarily monetary – but it brings real benefits to the people who do it and those on the receiving end.

    Because current co-pro models often don’t know quite what to do with value, we end up substituting for it with awards and tokens and warm words.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic piece of work ally. I have been a mental health service user for over 26 years. I will try and get my friends to read this. Hope you recover soon my friend. Always by your side.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your honesty and passion. It is good to know that I am not alone even in uncomfortable circumstances. I am beginning to become more interested in power in relationships at individual and group level. Your writing motivates me to learn more.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Another excellent post Ally!
    You elucidate the reasons why I tend these days with individuals and grassroots groups than with mainstream organisations and parties. As a Mental Health Service User and (Physically Disabled person) I’ve been asked by the establishment to be on various boards and committees – I used to say yes but they ended up just being talking shops and self-congratulatory circle-jerks! Even DPAC (at least in my area) has becone part of the Cult of Corbyn and is more interested in campaigning for him than for us.
    ORGANISE! AGITATE! FUCK THE STATE! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Glad to hear you are home with your lovely nurse! Your post has struck a major chord with many of us.i read some of your older posts about the transformation self congratulatory rah rah in the nhs. Cracked me up. Stay well rest up and regather yourself much love from a cat lover in australiax

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I managed to make an Australian laugh, I have done my job. Thanks for your lovely comment. It was great to wake up this morning not by a shout of “MEDICATION” but by the sound of loud purring as Izzy had moved up the bed during the night to settle next to me on my pillow. Have a great weekend A

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  9. Well said. All your writings bring to life the realities many of us as patients and carers, people who have conditions or life changing situations which cause us to access services meant to enable us, improve our health and well-being yet are sadly detrimental instead.

    As a result we channel our energies into many of the platforms presented as welcoming our input of our lived experiences that we can make a difference we can create positive change.

    However as many or your blogs highlight especially your most recent there are too many examples of tokenism the words sound good however the actions don’t match up.

    Inevitably we then subject ourselves to falsehoods and untruths by some who are held in high esteem who gain accolades & status championing overused tag lines creating clutter (Having said that there are some excellent people working at the elbow doing right thing, not often seen or heard).

    There are other well meaning institutions that have patient public groups, forums, participants, involvement etc believe they are co working co producing use lots of the co prefix and yet when we challenge them on this we are ‘marked’ as the problem. Your articulate writing and experience resonates with many Alison. If I ever need to refer to any examples to quote (and naturally I would always attribute to you) hope that is ok. Thank you Alison.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate the positive feedback. It has been so overwhelmingly positive, I am amazed. I wrote it when far from at my best, recovering from suicidal despair in a chaotic MH ward. Of course feel free to quote anything that may be of use. I am just happy that people get something from what I write and it’s also cathartic for me. Thanks again. Ax

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  10. Dear Ally,

    maybe I am just built too close to the water lately and the weird trigger is the FIFA World Cup, as the European and World Cups were always the most intense times when my brother and I would be texting our fingers into a carpal tunnel, when Germany was playing and winning. Last night was very bitter-sweet watching the intensely crazy Germany game and my brother not there to rant with me via text message, him in a German pub, me with friends somewhere in a London pub or home.

    But I read your blog and with tears and wish I’d known your blog before, it might have given me a lot of inspiration while I struggled through work, to see that there are people out there who not only go through immense struggle, but also look beyond their fence.

    I want to post a song for you and hope it touches you as much as it does me. I have to think of you when I listen to this song, as I get to know your story.

    Actually, it’s a song for every broken person.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a beautiful comment. Football could be a trigger for me too. Dad used to be extra angry whenever England did well (it’s a Scottish thing) and we would all suffer for it. I am zoning out of the world cup completely. The good thing is it is getting me out of the house more….am going on long walks, attending more AA meetings etc. Thanks so much. You have made my week.

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      1. Yes, especially with tiday’s 5:0 win. I understand you get away from it. For me it us just a mekancholic trigger as I have exited the traumatic side if grief.
        Glad it made your week. Enjoy your week.

        Like

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