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Why I work in mental health

October 8, 2017


_64128011_de27-1As you will have seen from this blog, I have been concerned, over recent months, in issues about the mental health workforce. The health of the workforce, both in terms of numbers and morale is central to the achievement of any ambitions we have about the development of mental health services. As I described in my last post there are many challenges facing us currently in respect of the workforce.  However as the stigma about mental health begins to recede there are also opportunities to promote working in mental health to a growing body of young people who see mental health as a motivating and central issue in their lives.

For this year’s World Mental Health Day I wanted to respond to this and, with the aim of encouraging others, write about what makes working in mental health for me such an inspiring vocation.

I came into mental health more than 10 years ago, first as Chief Executive at Rethink Mental Illness and subsequently in my current role at the Tavistock and Portman. I had previously had some engagement with the issues while a civil servant and at NHS Direct.  Not everything in those roles in mental health has, like any other job, been brilliant but I do not regret for a moment a decision to work in this field, in particular, at this time.  There are a number of reasons.

Mental Health has been a fascinating area to work in, intellectually.  This relates both to the understanding of the problem of mental illness and its impact on individuals, families and society but also in working on the interventions which might make a difference.    I have been repeatedly struck by the important shadow mental health casts over so many other areas of life:  work, education, the criminal justice system to name but a few, and the prospect of what changes we could make if we recognise properly the burden of mental ill health and invest effectively and prevention and treatment.  Having some role in making the case for change and supporting the delivery of services has been exciting and rewarding.

Mental health is not only intellectually satisfying, it is emotional engaging. Mental health is about people and how they think and how they feel.    The most effective therapeutic interventions I have seen and heard about in mental health rest on the value of empathy and relationships.  Those work in the front line of mental health services understand the direct and powerful role they play, as individuals, in supporting the recovery of the people they are helping.  Those values also matter for those running mental health organisations.

It has also been the right time to work in mental health. It is now ten years ago since the Time to Change programme started in England to challenge stigma on mental health and change public attitudes.  In that decade Time to Change has been the forefront of a sea change in public attitudes which has spread over many areas of public life such as the worlds of business, sport and politics.  With that change in attitudes has come a much greater openness across society about the experience of mental health problems and a greater recognition in all sorts of walks of life of the importance of supporting those affected.  Ten years on it is incredibly uplifting to have had a small part in making that programme happen.  I am unlikely to do anything more significant in my career.

The recognition that this is a special time for mental health also increases the urgency of finding the right things to do to make a difference to lives and collecting the evidence that those things work in practice. That is not easy at a time of austerity when almost any case for investment relies on the ability to make an economic argument that the costs of the new intervention will be, at least, covered by savings elsewhere. Political support may have arrived but there is much work still to do to sceure the necessary resources.

Mental health can be hard in other ways. It has brought me much closer to distress and suffering.  For all the need to be positive and hopeful there are days of profound sadness as when as you hear that someone you have known or are responsible for as a patient has taken their own life.  It has made me more angry than I have ever otherwise been in my career about injustices such the inhuman work capability assessment.

Working in mental health has, I believe, made me a stronger person.  It has opened my eyes to mental health issues outside work and the manifestations of mental health problems amongst my own family and friends.  Working in the field has not made me, necessarily, any better at managing such issues but I hope it has made me more understanding.

The best aspect, however, of working in mental health is the people. In 10 years I have met some truly wonderful and inspiring individuals whether clinicians, researchers, campaigners, service users or family members.  Above all I have met individuals who have experienced tremendous distress in their lives or those of their families but who have been able to direct those experiences towards wanting to make the world better for others.  That’s a great team to be part of.



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