Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency – BBC 1

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*Trigger warning – mental health issues.*

There’s a lot of talk in the media about mental health issues these days, but, sadly, the number of suicides remains high, especially amongst young men.  Roman Kemp (and the fact that Martin Kemp and Shirlie Holliman’s son is 28 makes me feel extremely old) made this programme about mental health and suicide after his close friend, Capital Radio producer Joe Lyons, took his own life.  Roman said he lives only three minutes from Joe, and would have rushed straight round if Joe had felt able to ask him for help.  Tragically, he didn’t: neither Roman, nor anyone else in their friendship group, nor Joe’s loving family, were aware of how badly Joe was struggling.

People here in Greater Manchester may be aware of the Shining a Light on Suicide project being championed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Andy Burnham.  One of the things it suggests is making a safety plan of what to do and whom to contact if you feel that you’re at risk of harming yourself, and this was also something that was mentioned in Roman’s programme.

No-one really feels very comfortable talking about this sort of thing, but we need to be.  Roman also talked about his own struggles with depression, and the fact that he’s been on medication for it for many years – and the fact that some people, especially young males, don’t feel able to talk about it.  I think women and girls do talk about it more, but it’s still not spoken about openly in the way that physical illnesses now are.  Roman said that more than three quarters of young men feel unable to confide in their friends and relatives about their issues, and that was borne out by the discussions he had with people who’d lost a friend or relative to suicide.

One of the lads he spoke to, who’d attempted suicide himself, said that he wasn’t even sure that he wanted to end his life – he just wanted to get away from everything in his head.  He just wanted it to stop, and it wouldn’t.  A lot of people will have been there.  Everything going round and round in your head.  Maybe other people driving you mad.  Maybe feeling trapped in an uncaring workplace, or a difficult domestic situation.  But, if those safety plans are in place, maybe people’ll be able to see another way out.

It’s been said over and over again that mental health problems need to be destigmatised, but it still seems to be something that many people feel unable to talk about, and it continues to be a particular problem amongst young men.  Please, please, if you’re struggling, ask for help.

 

Eating Disorders Awareness Week

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  British Eating Disorders UK (BEAT)’s summary – “Binge eating disorder will affect one in fifty of us in our lifetime, it is the most common but least understood. It isn’t about being greedy or lacking in willpower, but a serious mental illness which many suffer with alone, often with the fear of how others might react the reason they don’t reach out for help”.  I’m not responsible for the poor syntax 😉 , nor am I responsible for the clashing colours, but the meaning’s clear enough.   They’ve also pointed out on their website that “binge eating disorder is linked to low self-esteem and lack of confidence, depression and anxiety” and that “some people gain weight because of emotional difficulties, and being overweight can also lead to emotional difficulties”.

This is Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2021, with the focus on Binge Eating Disorder.  Everyone’s having bad days during lockdown: if you’re someone who struggles with Binge Eating Disorder, you may well be finding that some of those bad days trigger eating binges.  If relatives or friends tell you that they’re having a bad day, you’ll probably try to comfort them by telling them that hopefully tomorrow will be better and they’ll be able to put it behind them.  That doesn’t work with Binge Eating Disorder – the scales don’t care that you were having a bad day, so an eating binge will probably lead to weight gain, and then you’ll feel even worse about yourself, and it makes it that much harder to move on to a good day.  Scales are very mean like that.  So you’re probably having some pretty rough patches.

This isn’t meant to sound like a whingefest, just an attempt to highlight a problem which is often hidden.  Thank you to BEAT for highlighting it.  And almost a year of the pandemic is exacerbating a lot of mental health issues, especially in parts of the country which have been subject to extra restrictions.   If any of these are affecting you, have a lot of virtual hugs from me xxx.  And, on a totally different note, Happy St David’s Day.

It’s a chicken and egg situation, and also a vicious circle.  Oh dear, using two clichés in one situation isn’t very good English either, is it?   If you’re someone who has issues with overeating, and if you’re genetically prone to being overweight, then you’ve probably been called names for as far back as you can remember.  Society doesn’t half vilify overweight people, and that’s from early childhood onwards.  That probably led to low self-esteem, and may well be linked to anxiety and depression.  If you’re someone who’s genetically more likely to develop anxiety and depression, then you’re probably also more likely to have issues with food and eating.  Round and round it goes.

Just personally speaking, my worst days with it were when I’d just left university and was applying for jobs.  I filled in application form after application form, went for interview after interview, and got rejection after rejection.  When that happens, however much people tell you that there are loads of applicants for each place and that the constant rejections don’t mean that you’re a failure, it doesn’t half feel like you’re a failure.  But all sorts of different things can be triggers, and obviously it’s different for every person.

As with any mental health condition, some days, and some weeks, months and years, will be bad, and others won’t.  But lockdown is making things pretty difficult for everyone.  We also keep being told that obesity is one of the major factors leading to hospitalisation if someone has contracted Covid-19.  That’s a medical fact and I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be spoken about, but it’s adding to the feelings of guilt and shame and inadequacy that surround eating issues.

Also, one of the main causes of eating disorders is a need for control.  That sounds strange, because, with eating binges you lose control, but then you feel terrible because you lost control.  Feeling trapped can be a major trigger, and we’re all trapped at the moment.  Roll on March 29th, April 12th, May 17th and June 21st, eh?!

If you’re struggling, please shout.  If you suspect that someone else is struggling, please be nice.  Please don’t make comments about how much someone else is eating, and please, please don’t tell them that they’re fat.  One in fifty people are affected by this – that’s a lot of people.

Thanks again to Beat Eating Disorders UK for highlighting this.  There’s a lot of it about.

 

Football, Prince William and our mental health

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This isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but it remains a sad fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young British men, and that 75% of people in the UK who take their own lives are men.  It does seem to remain very difficult for men to discuss mental health issues, and it’s great that Prince William’s involvement in highlighting this very important issue is bringing it more attention.  Even a few years ago, there’d never have been an hour-long programme on prime time TV on BBC 1 about mental health.

He’s made a very good point about how people internalised their grief and trauma after the two world wars, as the feeling at the time was that everyone should try to move on and put those times behind them, and that we need to avoid doing that as we come to terms with the effects of the coronavirus and lockdown.  It was good to hear him talking about how the, much-deserved, “heroes” tag mustn’t be allowed to deter frontline workers from seeking any help they might need: I read an article by someone who helped to treat victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, saying the same thing.

And could we all be nice, please?  Whilst the majority of people *are* showing great kindness at this difficult time, there’ve been some very spiteful posts on social media of late, I won’t even say what I think of the appalling way in which some employers are treating their staff, and there’ve also been reports of parents being abused for either saying that they *will* send their children back to school or saying that they *won’t* send their children back to school.  The last things we need are nastiness and division.  Again, could we all be nice, please?  And, if you’re struggling, shout.  Men, this means you too!

What a weird year this is.  This programme was, as the title suggests, originally supposed to be about role that football can play in helping men to deal with mental health issues, and about well-known players joining Prince William in encouraging men to speak out by discussing their own experiences.

We saw a number of male footballers and fans – this was very much about male mental health – speaking out about their mental health issues, and we also heard about the SANDS United football teams, which are for men who’ve lost babies either before, during or just after birth.  It’s a way of bonding and of coming together.  And, whilst it seems a very long time ago now, we were all encouraged to take a minute to think about mental health issues before the start of the FA Cup 3rd round matches in Saturday.  The campaign was making progress, and getting a lot of attention …

… and then coronavirus hit us.  People have been cut off from their support networks, whether that’s grassroots football teams or anything else, and from things which we enjoy and which are important to us and which are an important outlet for us – which, for many of us (female as well as male!) is football.  And we don’t know what the long term effects of all this are going to be, in this country and everywhere else.

There’s the general trauma of the world being turned upside down, and the anxiety that that brings, as well as the fear that we or our loved ones may contract the virus.  There’s the trauma of being separated from our loved ones, and, for some people, of not being able to go out at all – it’s a lonely time.

There’s the upset of plans being cancelled.  And, yes, it is OK to be upset about this.  I am very sad that my holidays have been cancelled: they are the highlights of my year and I plan them so carefully and look forward to them so much.  And, as someone who overplans everything – it’s part of having anxiety – I find it very hard not being able to plan anything.  Going forward, there are, sadly, likely to be business failures and job losses.  And there are concerns that other health problems may have gone undiagnosed during lockdown.

And those are just the indirect effects of the virus.  Tens of thousands of people have died, leaving grieving relatives and friends who haven’t even been able to hold proper funerals.  It’s feared that many people who survived severe cases of the virus may suffer from PTSD, and that this may also affect people working in hospitals and care homes.

It’s not like the First World War or the Second World War.  No-one’s saying that it is.  But it is important that people don’t go down the “don’t talk about it” route: we’ve learnt from experience that that’s not a good idea.  And it’s crucial that people be nice to each other.  Some employers are behaving very poorly.  And the amount of nastiness and political points-scoring is appalling – it would be at any time, but especially at a time like this.  On top of that, we’ve now got parents being told that they’re depriving their children of their education and the company of their friends if they don’t send them back to school, and that they’re putting them in danger if they do.  Will the people doing this just shut up, OK!  Other people’s choices are not your business.  Everyone’s circumstances are different.

No-one could have seen this coming, and, like so many other things, this programme was partly overtaken by events.  But most of it was filmed before coronavirus hit, and we saw some very powerful and frank conversations about mental health issues, even actually about suicide attempts.  This is an incredibly important subject, and the fact that we’ve got a future king spearheading the campaign to address it says a lot.  This was a very moving programme.  Please, guys, we love you – if you’re struggling, speak out, and ask for help xxx.

WWI’s Secret Shame: Shell Shock – BBC 2

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This was horrible; but it said a lot about attitudes towards ordinary soldiers during the Great War, and also about attitudes in general towards mental health issues in men. It went into some detail about the story of a young man from Bolton who, having been found wandering about in an obvious state of severe trauma, was court martialled and shot at dawn.  Stories like that – and it was very sensitively presented by Dan Snow – aren’t unfamiliar, but they’re none the less distressing for that.

Jimmy Smith joined the Army in 1910, in his late teens. He was with the Lancashire Fusiliers during the famous “6 VCs before breakfast” assault on Gallipoli in 1915.  To mark the centenary of it, in 2015, there was an exhibition at the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury: I went to see it.  Incredible bravery, but the extent of the fighting, the brutality of it, for 6 VCs to have been awarded for that one action, is almost beyond imagining.  And then, in 1916, he was at the Battle of the Somme.  He won a promotion, and good conduct awards: he was a brave soldier and a hero.  But then he was buried alive after a German artillery explosion.

He was rescued, and sent to a hospital back home in Bolton for treatment. As soon as he was deemed physically fit, he was ordered back to the front; but he wasn’t up to it.  He hid under the stairs at his family’s home and wouldn’t come out, but the Military Police came round and pretty much dragged him out.  Then he was transferred to the King’s Liverpool Regiment- the regiment with which my grandad enlisted during the Second World War – and sent to Ypres/Ieper.  He wasn’t well and he couldn’t cope, and he was disciplined for not obeying orders, and eventually he was found wandering about near the town of Poperinghe, a few miles away, court martialled, and sentenced to death.  They ordered his friends to shoot him.  The execution was botched, so that he was injured rather than killed: it seems likely that his friends did that on purpose, hoping he’d be taken to hospital.  No.  His best friend was forced to finish him off.

He was one of 306 men executed under similar circumstances. Pardons were issued in 2009, but that was hardly a lot of use to them, or to the grieving families and friends they left behind. shot at dawn?  I doubt it, somehow.

So what was going on? We know that mental health issues were not really understood at the time, and we also know that they were stigmatised.  People were shut away in asylums for years on end.  But shutting someone away in an asylum, however horrific, at least acknowledged that they were suffering from a medical condition, and that it was something that they couldn’t help and weren’t doing on purpose.  The attitude of the military authorities towards shell shock – and, yes, some people still hold this attitude today, with depression and anxiety related disorders – was that it was a weakness, and that was extrapolated to being a moral disorder, cowardice, a disgrace.

That talk of “good conduct awards” sounds like something out of a school story, and the whole attitude sounds, in some ways, like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was bad enough in a school situation, being applied to the horror and slaughter and … whatever words you use to describe the fighting in the Great War aren’t bad enough.  And yet, earlier in the war, attitudes had actually been more sympathetic.

From what the programme said, the symptoms associated with shell shock hadn’t been seen before. That seems strange, because there must always have been battlefield trauma, but maybe it was the technological advances that made the fighting in the Great War different to what had gone before that created different symptoms.  Or maybe it just got more attention because of the sheer numbers involved – around 250,000 men.  Doctors genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and at first thought that there had to be some sort of physical cause.

Eventually, in January 1916, psychiatric units were set up close to the front line. The idea was more to patch ’em up and send ’em back as quickly as possible, but I think that attitude, harsh as it seems, was understandable given the desperation of the situation.  At least it was acknowledged that people needed help.  The programme then explained that work was being done at home to try to improve psychiatric treatment.  One doctor, at the Maudsley Hospital in London, was trying to develop forms of pastoral care.  Another doctor, according to Dan, was a bit of a charlatan, claiming that he could cure people in an hour, and showing “before and after” film footage which clearly wasn’t what it claimed to be.

The second doctor having a local-sounding name, I decided to see what Google could tell me about him. He was actually born in Bradford, but he attended VIth form at the boys’ school which is the “brother school” to my old school.  Oh dear.  That was a bit awkward.  However, further investigation found out that he was a very highly-respected doctor, the founder of the British Society of Gastroenterology, and that many of his former psychiatric patients wrote to thank him for his help.  So I think Dan was a bit hard on him, really!   Anyway, there were two main points to this part of the programme, one being that treatment offered varied widely, and the other being that at least it was being acknowledged that these men were not cowards, or “deficient” in any way: they were ill.

Then attitudes hardened. It seems to have been largely a reaction to the number of shell shock cases.  There’s a scene in Blackadder Goes Forth (this wasn’t mentioned in the programme, but everyone was really into Blackadder in my teens, and I remember this scene well) in which Blackadder tries to get out of being sent “over the top” by pretending to be “mad”.  It doesn’t seem very funny now, because the authorities took the view that that was what was going on.  They seem to have viewed men suffering from shell shock along the lines of naughty boys trying to skive out of PE lessons.  What did I say about Tom Brown’s Schooldays?  A cap was put on the number of people allowed treatment, and 3,000 men were court martialled – of whom, as already mentioned, 306 were executed.  An inquiry held after the war said that shell shock was a “disgrace”.  The term was actually banned, and little help was given to men struggling to cope once the war was over.

The current take on the Great War is that we should be trying to move away from the idea of lions led by donkeys. But … bloody hell.  And what makes it worse is that attitudes actually had been getting better.  And then they got worse again.  It’s understandable that the authorities wanted people back in action as soon as possible, but the attitude, the callousness, when doctors had said that these men were not cowards, that they were ill.

How do you make sense of it? Desperate times call for desperate measures?  No – that doesn’t make sense.  If soldiers have got something wrong with them, you’d try to sort it.  It was the failure to accept that something was wrong, the insistence that it was cowardice, moral failure.  Part of me wants to say that it was some sort of male public school attitude, but I’ve heard plenty of people who are neither male nor the product of public schools sneer that people suffering from depression and anxiety are just looking for attention and need to pull themselves together.  And, as bad as it is for women, it’s worse for men, because of this whole “macho” thing, especially in a military environment.  So I don’t really know what to say – apart from a big thank you to Dan Snow for his very sensitive discussion of a very distressing subject, and one which many people don’t find it easy to talk about.

The programme didn’t end with the Great War. It went on to discuss the resurfacing of shell shock during the Second World War.  At the start of the Second World War, talk of shell shock was banned, and, despite everything that had happened during the First World War, the advice given was to slap “hysterical” men across the face or throw cold water over them.  Thankfully, that changed, and the number of psychiatrists attached to the Army was increased from 6 (6!  For the entire British Army!) to 300.  It was after the D-Day Landings that huge numbers of shell shock cases were seen.

That happened to my grandad: he had shell shock after the D-Day Landings and the fighting that followed. Dan spoke to a surviving veteran about his experiences, and to the son of Len Murray (the Secretary General of the TUC during the Winter of Discontent and the early Thatcher years) about his father’s experiences.  In both cases, the men’s lives had been permanently affected by what had happened to them, and neither had received much help.  I know Grandad did receive treatment, so maybe it was the luck of the draw, and it depended on whether or not you got a sympathetic doctor.  Certainly there wasn’t enough support, though.

The programme then went on to say that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was only officially diagnosed/recognised after the Vietnam War, and only recognised by the British military after the Falklands War. Excuse my medical ignorance, but I’d kind of thought that PTSD was an official name for shell shock.  Apparently not.  The symptoms aren’t the same: PTSD sufferers have flashbacks, which First and Second World War veterans suffering from shell shock didn’t.  Sir Simon Wessely, who’s done a lot of work in relation to PTSD (and also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), explained about it, and suggested that it might be a cultural thing connected to the frequent use of flashbacks in films about war.  I don’t pretend to understand how that would work, but it was certainly interesting to hear about.  Dan then spoke to a man who served in Afghanistan and, although the Army apparently knew that he was displaying symptoms of PTSD, was only officially diagnosed years later, by his GP.

It was pointed out that, whilst there’ve been improvements in psychiatric treatment for serving troops, the availability of treatment for those who are no longer in the Army is actually being reduced, to save money.  And, even when treatment’s given, it’s only really palliative.  A century after the Great War ended, we still don’t really know how to treat this.

None of this was easy to watch. Jimmy Smith’s story nearly had me in tears.  It had Dan Snow visibly distressed.  “The guy was a hero,” he said.  Yes.  He was.  And he was executed by his own side.  The programme was well-named.  “Shame” is the right word.