Louise Freeman, Vice-Chair of the Doctors’ Support Network
The Doctors’ Support Network (DSN) is a peer support network established in 1996 by and for doctors and medical students with mental health issues. At that time, there was almost no specialist mental health support for affected professionals and a widespread belief that a diagnosis of, for example, bipolar affective disorder, would automatically exclude a doctor from practice (not now the case!).
As the Vice-Chair of DSN, I first came into contact with the RCVS regarding the cross-professional ‘Medical Minds Matter’ conference at Maudsley Learning in 2015, hosted by the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative.
Medical Minds Matter brought together veterinary surgeons, doctors, pharmacists and dentists to look at common factors in addressing the raised incidence (compared to the general public) of mental health problems in the healthcare professions. The good news, by the way, is that health professionals do very well with appropriate support and have better-than-average mental health outcomes. I agreed to give a talk about DSN and was then asked whether I could think of anyone who would be prepared to talk about their own experience of being a healthcare professional with a mental health problem. The team organising the event were struggling to find anyone who was willing to speak openly. I could think of someone – me. So, I also gave a talk about my own experience.
On my way home, while waiting for a train, I suddenly thought that if we could persuade even a few senior, currently well, health professionals to openly talk about having had a mental health problem, this would be a powerful stimulus to change our current harmful culture of stigma and shame.
I felt that although the professional bodies in healthcare now exhort practitioners to seek help early if they feel unwell, one is left with the impression that successful seniors have never had a mental health problem and if one does admit to an issue, it is career suicide.
To illustrate this, in 2003, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a ground-breaking article in the British Medical Journal about his own experience of recurrent depression. As we were still talking about this article in 2015, that in itself shows that not many more senior doctors had talked openly about their own mental health since then… I also thought that if a group of professionals almost literally stood up together, then that would be both easier to do and more powerful as an anti-stigma message, hence #AndMe as the name of the campaign.
After the conference, I persuaded Lizzie Lockett, Mind Matters Director, that a joint initiative to challenge mental health stigma in this way would be great although, we both thought that this might be an uphill battle. DSN and RCVS agreed that we had to be very cautious on our role models’ behalf in order to avoid any risk to the professional’s personal or professional wellbeing resulting from them taking part in the campaign.
A year later, four (slightly nervous) senior role models assembled at the launch of the #AndMe campaign at the House of Commons: David Bartram – vet and RCVS Council member, Angelika Luehrs – consultant psychiatrist and DSN chair, Jonathan Richardson – consultant psychiatrist and medical director of a Care Quality Commission graded outstanding mental health trust and me. Kevan Jones MP introduced us with a fantastic talk about his own experience of depression and we were off.
We achieved professional press coverage in the campaign launch and have since had almost entirely positive feedback in response to our sharing of senior role model health stories mainly via social media. So far, there is a steady stream of brave volunteers to potentially make a positive difference to how all health professionals view their own mental health. I had not done anything like this campaign before and have been amazed by the response to our wonderful volunteers’ real life narratives.
In essence, #AndMe seems to be achieving its initial aim of reducing mental health stigma in health professionals by showing that a mental ill-health history does not preclude achieving career success at the highest level. Stories can really change the world.
#AndMe only works because of our fantastic volunteers who are willing to share their mental health stories. If you would like to join the campaign, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to have an initial chat.
To read our #AndMe stories, visit the campaign page on either the DNS or the Mind Matters websites, and follow our hashtag on Twitter.