Our Nation’s Biggest Public Health Problem

The subject of this blog is sensitive and difficult. It may stir up some difficult issues or memories for you, as you read. If this happens, then please take time to seek the help you need. I believe this blog and ones to follow might be some of the most important I have written to date.

 

UnknownI am currently reading a phenomenal book, sent to me in the post, by a dear friend of mine, who is a trained counsellor and knowing the work I do, felt that I should read it also. The book is called “The Body Keeps the Score” by the eminent Psychiatrist, Bessel Van Der Kolk. In my humble opinion, it should be compulsory reading for every person training in any of the clinical specialities, including public health and for those working in education. The book focusses on the detailed research and work done by Van Der Kolk and others at Harvard over the last 30 years in the whole area of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD), or “Disorders of Extreme Stress, Not Otherwise Specified” (DESNOS). It is not a part of our vocabulary, unfortunately, because even now, after a huge evidence base and many studies, there still remains no such psychiatric diagnosis. However, it is a hidden epidemic affecting huge numbers of our population and is the root of many of our major public health issues. So what causes this problem and just how wide spread is it? The evidence shows so strongly that the cause of CPTSD or DESNOS is Adverse Childhood Experiences, which we more starkly call Child Abuse.

 

Child abuse falls into four main categories: Physical abuse, Sexual Abuse, Verbal Abuse and Emotional abuse – usually in the form of neglect. 10% of children suffer regular verbal abuse. 25% suffer regular physical abuse. 28% of women and 16% of men have suffered sexual abuse. 16% regularly watch domestic violence. 87% of all those who suffer one type of abuse, are also abused in other ways. Each of these forms of abuseUnknown lead to major health problems later in life and studies are showing that it is not just mental health issues (many of which lead to inappropriate diagnoses like Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder and ineffective treatments) but also major physical health problems. Those who have been abused are twice as likely than others to develop cancer and four times as likely to have emphysema. The more difficult a person’s experiences, the higher the chance of developing heart, liver or lung disease at an early earlier age with much higher chances of taking more health risks with smoking, becoming overweight or having multiple sexual partners. There is good evidence to suggest a link with autoimmune diseases, such a lupus, and other complex conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. The body cannot be separated from the mind and literally keeps the score of the internalised turmoil. So, even if the abuse happens before memories are formed, or our minds manage to forget or block out what has happened, the body simply cannot forget and sometime and in someway, the damage will show itself. Studies show that the overall cost of this appalling reality far exceed those of cancer or heart disease. In fact, eradicating child abuse would cut depression rates by over 50%, alcoholism by 66% and suicide, IV drug use and domestic violence by 75%. Antidepressants and antipsychotics are now some of our largest prescribing costs. We know this, but are doing very little about it. Perhaps it feels too big. Perhaps we don’t want to face the demons involved. Instead, we are numbing the problem, trying desperately to get people to be just functional enough to keep on serving the needs of our economic system, but we are not facing up to or dealing with this horrific problem, nor its true cost.

 

What can be done in the face of such evil? How can we develop aimages culture of compassion and restorative justice in which we can find a new way through for humanity? It isn’t getting any better. It is just as widespread and far reaching in its consequences as it was a generation ago. Is it possible for us to face up to the startling reality we face? Van der Kolk offers much hope, but it is not within the gift of the health service and social services to tackle this alone. If we are to take this issue seriously, we must embrace what Bessel refers to (at the end of chapter 2) as four fundamental truths:

 

  1. Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring wellbeing.
  2. Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know and to find a common sense of meaning.
  3. We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through simple activities such as breathing, moving and touching – (learning to be present in our own bodies is a vital way of separating out the memories of the past which can overwhelm us at times).
  4. We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.

images-1People can be healed of trauma. We need this at both an individual and corporate level. We have become so focussed on saving money, on quick fixes to ensure the NHS and Social Care System can survive, but we are ignoring the root cause of many of our ill health issues. If we are willing to face up to the truth of child abuse in our society and its long lasting and far reaching impact on overall health and wellbeing, then we might just be able to find a way through to healing and restoration of what has become an extremely broken society. In the blogs that follow, I will look at some of the ways we might find a way through this crisis of epidemic proportions. One thing we must face straight away is that we are spending our resources in the wrong places and are focussing our attention in the wrong areas. We must protect our children and help people learn how to be good parents. We must strengthen our school teachers and sense of community. We must invest in the first five years of life far more than we are doing so currently, especially those key first 12 months of bonding and attachment. Together, if we want to, with love, care, bravery and determination, we can change the future. There is hope. There is healing. Our systems are not yet designed to cope with this, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and face up to the truth. The truth will set us free and enable us to develop the kind of wellbeing that every human being should be able to live within.

 

 

 

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Learning to Celebrate Success

iu-2The NHS really is amazing. Today, I have been at the NHS confederation (confed2016), a conference which helps to set the pulse and rhythm of the health system over the following 12 months. I heard Dame Kelly Holmes speak movingly about her own experiences, help she received from across the NHS and how grateful she is to live in a country where there is such excellent healthcare available to everybody, no matter how rich or poor. As a double Olympic champion, she highly values her personal relationship with her GP, keeping care local and personal. She would not be where she is today had it not been for the superb care she was given when in the depths of depression only a year before she was able to achieve her dream. Had it not been for surgery, physiotherapy and nutritional expertise all from people working within this incredible system, she would never have accomplished what she has done in her career. And not only her, there was a moving tribute from her mother who has also had significant health problems over the last year.

 
In a time of austerity, although in the OECD countries, there have been 260,000 extra cases of missed cancer in the past year, not one of them has occurred in the UK!! The NHS is staffed by brilliant, caring, compassionate people, who are pursuing excellence in the care they provide. The NHS is able to provide some of the best health outcomes in the world and is still rated as the best health organisation in the world by the World Health Organisation, despite having one of the lowest government expenditures in the developed world.

 
We hear so much negativity in the press about failures, pressures, targets and financial strain that it is no wonder there is a low morale at times amongst the staff. But Kelly Holmes tells us that we must learn to celebrate our successes, because in our dark times (and there are many in the field of healthcare), it isiu-1 vital that we keep hope alive. There were many times, when the press was against her, out for a good story, many times when things did not go to plan, but the celebration of her successes along the way kept her hope alive. We are going to have days when we get it wrong. We are going to have increasingly more situations in which we feel squeezed, hard pressed and floundering, but there is so much we are doing every single day that literally transforms the lives of countless individuals. We look people in the eye and tell them our names, that we will be caring for them and that they matter to us. We compassionately communicate the best and worst of news. We use our skills to arrange appointments, clean, bathe, bandage, measure, test, diagnose, operate, teach, manage, cure, deliver new life, care for the dying and so much more. This is nothing short of amazing.

 

1973049_861ba277[1]I am so grateful for the teams I work with at Ash Trees Surgery in Carnforth, Lancashire North CCG and Better Care Together around Morecambe Bay. We are doing brilliant things together every day, as are countless teams across the UK. Part of the culture shift we need to see is for us to lift our heads, celebrate what is excellent and use it as fuel to propel us further forward into the love and good of the future. I thank God for the NHS, it is worth remembering what a treasure we hold in our hands and continue to be grateful for the privilege it is to serve people through it. If we don’t learn to celebrate our successes, we may not find the reslience we need for the path ahead. But with hearts full of gratitude and a sense of achievement, we can continue to go for gold.

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