The Silent Screams of Service Users by Steve Flatt and Pippa Hunter Jones

The silent screams of “experts by experience”.

There is a bloody battle going on in mental health services. It is not a battle fought with guns, bombs or knifes but the blood is real nonetheless. The suicide rate is rising, more people are dying of poverty and deprivation today than for many years. In 2013, in the UK, suicides reached a 13-year high, with population level data linking these suicides to austerity policies (Barr et al, 2015). The sick, frightened and disabled are the victims whose stories are rarely heard above the white noise of statistical analysis, learned papers delivered by earnest academics who are seeking to show how good their work is and please their political masters with tales of success and value for money.

The stories of those for whom mental health services, social services and benefit support did not work are airbrushed out with great swathes of digital images provided to the media in sound bites like, ““Having read thousands and thousands of transcripts, you can see the presence of the therapeutic relationship, and feel it in the same way as if you were reading a novel – you would feel emotions, fear, happiness. The written word will evoke emotion,” (Sarah Bateup, Ieso Health Independent march 20th 2017).

And reading a novel is the same as real life? – do we experience our lives as though we are in a novel? Ask a sufferer whose distress has not been lessened or help been offered, if their experience is like being in a novel, they will say it is more like a horror movie. Ask them if their story has been listened to and they will look at you as though you are an alien.

I attended the ERSC conference in York on 3rd March and listened to stories of service users whose experience of a “therapeutic relationship” left me feeling tearful and angry. Stories of prescriptive medicine, incarceration, labelling and a determination not to listen to the stories of the people the professionals are supposed to be helping.

There remains a powerful sense that despite the highlighting of our psychological wellbeing as a matter to be attended to, to improve the state of the nation, the reality remains that of business as usual; academics collate data; practitioners continue to deliver “evidence based” protocols that bear little relationship to a natural human interaction and ask clients to complete forms that measure the absence of failure rather than the presence of success and then declare that the intervention has produced a statistical recovery of better than 50%. The attention to the story and experience of the client is ignored – that the person has not changed their behaviour, been more sociable, able to be independent or carry out a meaningful activity is not measured or even recorded.

The McNamara fallacy describes the current state of mental health services beautifully:

“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.” (Yankelovitch 1972)

The McNamara fallacy (also known as quantitative fallacy), named after Robert McNamara, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, involves making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others. On this basis, according to the data the USA won the Vietnam war! The reason given for ignoring other “soft intelligence” is often that these other observations cannot be proven.

It is not the suicide of the service but of the person who experienced it – or rather – didn’t experience it. All the while the professionals continue to congratulate themselves on another superb set of statistics. Please remember that numbers don’t talk but people do!

“Partial or inaccurate information is often a crucial characteristic of the incubation period (toward disaster), but it is compounded by poor intelligence, the failure to seek out relevant data or interpret the available data properly. Cultures of denial, secrecy and protectionism, and fragmentation of knowledge about problems and responsibility for addressing them, are often implicated in such failures” (Turner and Pidgeon, 1997).

When will the stories of service users be listened to and the realisation dawn that an effective mental health service requires professionals to listen with a constructive ear to the people whose experience can tell us how professionals might be more effective? If we continue to assume that the professionals always know best and that their idea of a good service is based upon data, then the project that is “good mental health” is doomed to perpetual failure.

References:

Barr, Benjamin , Kinderman, Peter and Whitehead, Margaret (2015). Trends in mental health inequalities in England during a period of recession, austerity and welfare reform 2004 to 2013. Social Science & Medicine, 147. pp. 324-331

Turner, B.A., Pidgeon, N.F., 1997. Found in Martin G, McKee L, Dixon-Woods M (2015), Beyond metrics? Utilising soft intelligence for measuring healthcare data and safety, Social Science & Medicine 142.

Yankelovich Daniel “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)

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