66. Consuming your own smoke, but coughing a bit.

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Evergreens, preparing to march.

The last gas canister is nearly used up on the blow-lamp and the Poundland Firelighters have long since expired. And now it’s raining again. I’m pouring some delicatessen grade canola oil on to a pile of smouldering vegetation and I’m wondering how all this began.

I should have been commenting shrewdly on the mental health news, but I’ve had to let things slip. This is the Day of the Hedge, the story that John Wyndham never dared write. I think it began with an innocent attempt to help someone. A number of weeks back a man suddenly turned up and asked if I wanted my hedge trimming. He looked a bit unofficial, but he had a lightweight aluminium bike and a matching petrol hedge trimmer in a duffle bag. It was a cool look, quite unlike the usual tree surgeons, who wear protective gear and drive Land Rover Defenders. I suspected he was new to the war on hedges. I asked him his name, and where he lived. When he told me, I was pretty sure I’d seen that name in the local paper a few times as a person convicted of petty theft and sent to jail. So what? I also remembered that, in mitigation, he was said to have had a drugs problem. So what? We believe in rehabilitation don’t we?

I negotiated him down to £10 and showed him where to put the hedge cuttings. All this passed off smoothly. Before leaving, he glanced at our long line of dissident conifer trees and offered to take them on. Maybe, I thought.

Some weeks later he turned up to do the hedge and we negotiated a price for a full days work. I felt like the man in the vineyard parable. Part of the deal was to come back and take all the cut vegetation away. Again, this all went smoothly. He trimmed the line of trees and made a huge pile of branches. Next day he was going to come and collect them in a trailer.

A few days passed until he turned up again. Could he have an advance of £20 to buy a new tyre for his trailer? OK I thought. At worst I am only going to be £20 poorer, and I still have his ladder, saw and lopper device.

And that, dear reader, was the last I saw of him, some 3 weeks ago. I can’t say I’m not concerned about him, but the pressing problem is the huge pile of branches outside the back door. I have a slight tendency towards pyromania, but let it be said, I have never set fire to anything major, not even an NHS Trust. If I was admitted to a forensic unit, I’m pretty sure I’d be allowed into the smoking area on my own after a month or two. Fire would not figure strongly on my risk assessment.  Nevertheless, there is a tall plume of smoke over my house. I reassure Mrs EP that it is mainly steam and not smoke. I hear the neighbours coughing loudly and I reassure myself they are heavy smokers. My legal advisor tells me there are heavy fines if any nesting birds get made homeless. I prepare a Richard Nixon style deniability defence.

My carbon footprint is growing, but the pile seems as big as ever. For the sixth time, I climb inside the green recycling bin and jump up and down to make just a bit more room for foliage. As I jump, I ponder, and I realise there is a very easy solution.

How many psychiatrists are needed to get rid of a pile of trees? At least four. The first to recognise we are in Denial. The second to find a garden dude in the free local magazine. The third to dial the number. The fourth to mix the martinis. Perhaps an extra one to reassess fire risk.

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65. Sleepwalking blindfold, into an amorphous tapestry.

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Historians agree that modern times began in 1980, with the invention of Pac-Man.

When did it all go wrong? The answer it seems is 1980. And, to a lesser extent, 1988.

Certainly, quite a few things went wrong in 1980. John Lennon was murdered, the Iran / Iraq war began, Robert Mugabe was installed and worst of all, the post-it note went on sale. In mental health, our particular Chernobyl was an explosion of toxic diagnostic heterogeneity. 1980 saw the invention of the concept ‘major depression’ (MDD). With the publication of the DSM3 diagnostic manual, most emotion-based illnesses was fed into a diagnostic Magimix. This turned out to be very convenient for certain people. One, (sloppy) people who don’t like making diagnoses. Two, the (wicked) inventors and propagators of so-called SSRI antidepressants. Rampant heterogeneity was very inconvenient for anyone who wanted to investigate the possible causes and treatments of Depression. Edward Shorter explains the story much better than I can.*

Certain discrete entities, that should have been studied much more carefully, got lost in the new, amorphous tapestry of MDD. One of these was the notion of ‘biological symptoms’ such as appetite and weight loss, early waking and diurnal mood variation (DMV). The classic ‘melancholic’ patient felt much worse early in the morning. Studies of cortisol and other hormone levels throughout the day showed a changed pattern in most depressed people. Of particular interest was the finding that most depressed patients failed to reduce their cortisol levels even when given a steroid tablet the night before. This led to the ‘dexamethasone suppression test’ and other early attempts to find a definitive lab test for Depression. Old school psychiatrists regarded DMV as a cardinal symptom of melancholia. They separated melancholia from other types of depression with barbed wire, landmines and a no-fly zone.

Today, research into circadian rhythms in organisms and the body clock in humans is a major strand of research in life science. Gene expression studies are the way forward.  And this week, even the BBC acknowledged this by holding a ‘Day of the Body Clock’.

Quite what the editors had in mind for the body clock day remains a mystery. Each news program had to slot in a body clock item but the presenters looked bewildered as to why. We heard that sportsmen performed better in the evenings. Some brave schools are shifting their timetable for teenagers later into the day, when they are more likely to be awake, although the teachers are more likely to be asleep. More interestingly, scientists told us that society was guilty of a ‘supreme arrogance’ in trying to over-ride our need to get enough sleep. Prof Russell Foster, at the University of Oxford, said people were getting between one and two hours less sleep a night than 60 years ago. We were warned that ‘Modern life and 24-hour society mean many people are now “living against” their body clocks with damaging consequences for health and wellbeing’. Further support then for the Blur Theory – Modern Life is Rubbish. Sleep, like lunch and the concept of Melancholia, was abolished in the eighties.

Studies continue to reveal that a sub-group of depressed patients show an abnormal expression of clock genes. Several promising types of non – drug therapy for depression were based on trying to adjust the body clock: Sleep Deprivation, Phase Advance and Bright Light therapy. Unlike SSRI antidpressants, these are treatments that cost hardly anything and can easily be implemented at home. Also unlike SSRIs, these are treatments that no-one ever tries. The post-it note and Robert Mugabe are here to stay, but Shorter is correct to say that MDD must go: ‘melancholia and non-melancholic depression are quite separate illnesses’. I’m having the bumper stickers printed now.

The idea that deliberately reducing sleep can act as an antidepressant seems counter-intuitive. But it’s possible that the insomnia in depression is the body’s attempt to defend itself against low mood. Which means that society as a whole may be trying to stave off existential despair by staying up late.

*Edward Shorter, 2014, The 25th anniversary of the launch of prozac gives pause for thought: where did we go wrong? BJPsych, 204, 331-2.

64. Improving posture, for sitting ducks.

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Pfizer’s new team arrive, looking benign at first.

If you buy something in Waitrose you are given a green plastic token. On the way out you must make a choice between three charities by placing your token in the respective glass jar. To be honest, Waitrose have handed you a burden of responsibility you could well do without. Imagine what would happen if an ethical committee ever popped into Waitrose – they’d be stuck there for hours. Luckily, most people can  resolve ethical dilemmas by throwing a set of mental dice, much like answering the last few multiple choice questions as the examiner is coming towards you collecting the papers. If you don’t have this kind of moral adaptability; if you’re a person who never uses the word ‘whatever’, you might turn into a whistle-blower.

In a quiet news week NHS whistle-blower stories are a good way of filling up Page 8 in The Times. The new head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, wants to reassure whistle-blowers that they can speak out safely. He has even had the shark tank removed from under his office floor.

If you want to be a whistle-blower – and remember your careers teacher said not to – it’s important to brush up on  your movies. Start with ‘Serpico’, noting that it begins with the whistle-blower being shot and rushed to hospital. Serpico contains all the essential components for exposing poor practice , apart from the getting shot in the face aspect. Firstly, the character must be something of a Bohemian, with excellent hair and a Honda Superhawk. Secondly, the organisation that needs exposing has to be corrupt, through and through. In a conspiracy thriller it’s a given that corruption goes ‘all the way to the Mayor’s Office’. Never trust and confide in the mentor-like figure, played by an avuncular character actor, like Cliff Robertson. And thirdly, there has to be an audience that cares about the information revealed – proper journalists and a Congressional Committee. If your situation doesn’t have the Serpico ingredients no-one will take any notice and you will be marched out of the building, transferred to Runcorn, shot in the face, or all three.

The whistle-blower likes to be seen as a strong, principled and altruistic person who stands up against a corrupt system. Firstly, they exhaust the proper channels, then, finding everyone is in on the cover up, they take it outside the organisation, to the papers. In most cases, the whistle-blower is suspended from duty and very slowly discredited by the employer. Mostly they seem to lose their eventual employment tribunal and people assume that a lot of them are cranks. If they had paid attention to ‘The Insider’, they’d have been wise to all these shenanigans. For revealing that tobacco was surprisingly bad for you, Russell Crowe’s tobacco executive character was subjected to all sorts of dirty tricks by the company.

Whistle-blowers seem to get stuck in the system, sometimes for years. Some of them get stuck in embassies or Russia. Few of them get compensation or vindicated in front of a congressional hearing or portrayed as heroes.

Stories about deficiencies in the public services have lost a lot of their shock value. And employers have become more sophisticated in their powers of discrediting people. Whistle-blowers are often accused of non PC activities, such as being religious, arrogant, or failing to attend the fire lectures. That’s mavericks for you.

Essentially, whistle-blowing is not the British way of doing things, which is to muddle through and make the best of a bad situation. However, that changed a little since the ascendency of ‘management’ in public sector organisations. Managers made the mistake of believing they were running small private companies, when really they were administrators. All the major decisions, and all of the risk, is taken by central government. Yet managers have been successful in calling themselves Boards, styling themselves on private industry and paying themselves accordingly.

Local Trusts expected staff to be loyal to the Trust, but in reality they are only loyal to the NHS as a whole. This mismatch in loyalty plays out as follows: local manager as Sheriff of Nottingham, employee as Robin Hood, Simon Stevens as King Richard, David Nicholson (previous NHS chief) as King John.

The biggest problem for whistle-blowers is a sea change in public perceptions of organisations. No-one is surprised to find there is bullying or abuse within large institutions such as Oakwood Prison, or BBC’s Front Row program. Expectations are lowering and the shock threshold is rising. Medical whistle-blowing stories are losing their impact.  I suspect that the conspiracy thriller genre has been so influential that everyone now assumes that large organisations are corrupt propaganda machines. The only exception really is Waitrose. Feed the words ‘waitrose’ and ‘whistle-blowing’ into google and nothing happens – apart from one dark moment in 1997, when Waitrose were accused of organising duck shoots for their staff. According to a leading member of the National  Anti-Hunt Campaign, ‘Up to three times a week at the Leckford Abbas Estate near Stockbridge, Hants, parties of drunken John Lewis staff blast away at the pheasants, along with ducks, grouse, pigeons, squirrels and anything else that moves.’ These accusations were soundly refuted, which is reassuring. I don’t think the Anti Hunt Campaign get many green tokens down there, even now.

63. Being a do be, not a don’t be.

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Voyeurism can be a problem for creatures that mate outdoors.

 

British psychiatry is a bullet-riddled corpse lying in the gutter, but people are still stopping by, from time to time, to give it another kicking.

It’s in a similar condition to other twentieth century institutions, like organised religion, nuclear power and the Co-op. They are zombies, but they are still staggering forwards, muttering incoherently.

The bullets come from many directions. No new drugs, no new therapies, massive cuts in hospital and community services. Very few medical graduates are coming forward to work in the speciality.

Attacking British psychiatry in 2014 is equivalent to laying into Workington F.C. for finishing bottom of the Conference League (North).

This time, the would-be assassins are a group called the Council for Evidence Based Psychiatry (CEP), who are attempting an anti-psychiatry re-launch, this time under an ‘evidence-based-medicine’ banner.  Some of their argument turns on the (lack of) benefits and dangers of antidepressant drugs.

None of this criticism is new, and like all negative campaigns, this one will fall victim to the ‘negative halo effect’ that surrounds mental health information. It’s guaranteed to make people hop channels. The media won’t be interested unless one of the following crops up: colourful brain scan, or samurai sword.

Like progressive rock, anti-psychiatry belongs to a former era. CEP might just as well attack any other long demised evil empire, such as the Soviet Union or the Barons, or Marlborough Man. They could still be yelling ‘Judas’ at Bob Dylan for ‘going electric’ in 1966. They are probably still worried about the fuel tanks on the Ford Pinto.

To be fair, there is a lot to be critical about in modern psychiatry. Many of the points made by CEP are manifestly true, much as the programs ‘grumpy old men / women’ make accurate observations about modern life. It’s easy to criticise and there’s so much to be critical about. But what is the aim? To rant and rave, or to get more resources for non-drug treatments? To do that, the battle has to be fought in the context of public attitudes towards mental health problems.

Back in the middle of the last century, some very creative and brave researchers attempted to find out what ‘ordinary people’ knew and felt about mental illness. There were a number of milestone studies, such as those by Shirley Star in Chicago, Cumming and Cumming in Canada, and Gatherer and Reid in England.

These studies found that people tended to stereotype the mentally unwell person as dangerous and unpredictable. They were slow and reluctant to consider someone to be mentally ill, but once they did, they tended to avoid that person. The aim of these researchers was to reduce stigma by designing public education programs. Sadly, no-one is paying attention to what they found out, which basically, was: 1. ‘stay positive’ and 2. don’t attempt to pretend that mental illness does not exist – people are hard-wired to believe that it does.

Attempts to alter people’s attitudes toward mental illness failed because of the negative halo effect. In the case of the Cummings, they were eventually forced to leave town, hence the name of their book, ‘Closed Ranks’.

The researchers attributed this to an attempt to advance the notion that mental illness was something that could happen to anyone. People just wouldn’t accept that.

Interestingly, now it is the psychiatrists and nurses who are closing ranks. The worry is that what remains of the mental health industry will turn in on itself, similar to police departments, such as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad or LAPD after Rodney King.

One sign of this is the Royal College of Pyschiatrists’ accusing itself of institutional racism, following in the footsteps (smaller size, obviously) of the Metropolitan Police. Another sign is the defensive sort of response service users get from NHS Trusts in response to queries.  There are odd attempts at ‘whistle-blowing’, but in the NHS, that’s basically a one-way ticket to the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Closing ranks is not the answer, nor is smashing the system. Everyone knows that Psychiatry is the Cinderella specialty. The neglect, in all its forms, including poor quality treatments, is down to negative public attitudes. The Turning Away, as Floydians would put it. The solution, so obviously, is better media coverage.

Here’s an example of a positive strategy: in Liverpool, The Readers Organisation has been pursuing positive mental health by setting up Reading Groups for people with Depression*.

Results have been very promising, although the evidence base would doubtless fail to satisfy the CEP. Probably they will start to identify victims of literature instead: ‘Hi, I’m Charlie. I’ve been catatonic since I read Silas Marner’.

It’s already been shown that reading challenging literature causes bits of brain to light up in bright colours. Surely its time for a controlled trial of Wordsworth versus Prozac?

Although ‘ECT versus Titus Andronicus’ was turned down by the Ethical Committee.

 

 

*An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of

reading in relation to depression and well-being: http://www.thereader.org.uk/media/72227/Therapeutic_benefits_of_reading_final_report_March_2011.pdf