The state is still failing schizophrenia sufferers

Rethink's Schizophrenia Commission shows how a technocratic system is letting patients down.

Hundreds of thousands of carers will be delighted to hear of the publication today of the report of Rethink’s Schizophrenia Commission. Let me explain why.

The other month my friend was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In anguish after redundancy and a double bereavement, she had begun to see dead bodies through car windows and threatening connections in all she read from the pavement, to the label on a tin of beans to the front page of the FT. She was terrified because constantly, just out her sight, she could sense the presence of someone who was going to do grave harm to her tiny children. Experiencing difficulties on the schizophrenic range of illnesses her family called the "emergency team". They arrived three days later. In the meantime she was admitted to a "specialist unit" having been taken in by her frantic husband after she’d sought to jump in front of a moving vehicle. Soon he got a phone call at home only to realise that the doctor at the other end of the line was talking about a different patient.  Placed on "constant observation" she was twice - and unmissed by the NHS  - found, mud covered, wandering barefoot near home some miles away.  My friend is just one of hundreds who have experienced poor care.

Rethink's report records that 250,000 of us will experience illnesses in the schizophrenic range. In practice that includes the rape victim whose auditory hallucinations mean her attacker will always be with her. It encompasses the lad who screams to his father in fear "are you really my Dad?" as he tries to make sense of the faces, colours and lights that he sees all about him. Not to mention the large number of kids from poorer backgrounds who seem to be disproportionately impacted by this particular form of severe mental ill health. They are not alone of course. Severe mental ill health affects 700,000 citizens and their families.  And in seeking to address their needs the exhaustion of the technocratic, inflexible welfare state is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated.

In city after city, there is now no out of hours social work if your child needs urgent help. Social services advise that you ring the police instead. And so you may soon find you are among the many parents who have ended up sleeping on a police cell floor alongside a family member with, say,  severe  Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while a drunken brawler crashes around next door.  That, or your employer may take to designing redundancy selection to remove you because you need to leave work early for a good while. Why? Well, the only place they could find for your son was a three hour drive away. And when he is in streams of tears from the unit’s phone you just know that you will have to find the petrol money from somewhere to make the six hour return drive for the one hour of visiting time that the nurses allow.  And even there you may encounter a row of doctors advising you that your child will be discharged weeks before you think it is safe to do so. What they cannot tell you is that their new Clinical Commissioning Group has demanded a "faster average churn rate". No wonder the state reaches for the mass produced response of life shortening, menstruation stopping, bone drying, heart pressure inducing, sight blurring, memory stealing, weight adding, medication with the gentle words "there will be some side effects".

Mental ill-health should be a defining political question of our times. It breaches the ramparts of houses, flats and castles in every class and region. It shatters even the strongest of families who set out to stand by their loved one who has become unwell.  And those who face it are the objects of the last respectable form of vicious discrimination: Watch the faces of A&E staff as they turn to admissions that have attempted suicide. Note that it is only this February that it became legal for someone who had been severely ill, and been long recovered, to become a school governor. Register that for eighteen months until last month a large local radio station ran a jingle "you’d have to be mad to work here but if you do we’ll section you" and thought that it was hysterically funny when I rang to ask "why?" Imagine a jingle that offered to lock up black, gay, Jewish or female listeners for being themselves?

And the hundreds of thousands of carers know exactly what I mean.

Francis Davis is a fellow at ResPublica and this week has contributed to Jon Cruddas MP’s Labour List series on One Nation politics.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear