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NHS boss who ‘came out’ about mental illness

Maggie Gruner talks to Lisa Rodrigues about her life working as the chief executive of an NHS trust while suffering from severe depression

24 August, 2018 — By Maggie Gruner

Lisa Rodrigues

AS a 21-year-old student nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital, Lisa Rodrigues – who later became the chief of an NHS trust – made a botched suicide attempt.

She got no sympathy from a nurse in A&E, who told her she was a selfish waste of space who had taken him away from caring for more deserving patients.

Deeply ashamed, Lisa believed him. His words “became embedded in my consciousness and the way I viewed myself for many years”, she writes in her memoir Being an NHS Chief Executive: What they never told me (or if they did I wasn’t listening).

It wasn’t until 2013, while a top NHS boss, that she “came out” about the mental illness she had experienced on and off since she was 15.

Speaking to the Review, Lisa lambasted inadequate provision of resources for mental health, resulting in long delays for patients.

“Since 2010, mental health services have had year-on-year reductions in comparison to the rest of the NHS. Most mental illness starts in the teenage years, as mine did. If you don’t have the right care and support early on you end up with chronic illness for life. It blights everything, affecting education, opportunities for work, social life, a decent home.

“People are waiting many, many months for their children to be seen.”

She said she had been lucky in having a supportive family and friends and the opportunity to return to study.

Her book charts her 13 years steering a Sussex mental health trust while facing periods of severe depression. She is honest about her personal challenges and about what went wrong as well as what went right.

Providing insight into senior healthcare management, she also explores stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

A volunteer with the Samaritans – also a writer, coach and broadcaster – Lisa asks why mental health “first aid” is not mandatory in schools, workplaces, universities, and across society.

She writes that we are far more likely to meet someone at risk of suicide than a person who has collapsed because their heart stopped. But while millions learn about resuscitation and cardiac massage, relatively few go on suicide intervention skills training courses.

She was 58 and approaching retirement when she finally felt able to be honest about “what it felt like to be a chief executive who didn’t always feel OK, but felt that she had to pretend that she was”.

But going public – in a Health Service Journal article – was rapidly followed by a significant depressive breakdown.

She attended a Great Ormond Street 40-year reunion, followed by a weekend in Hampstead visiting old haunts with nursing chums.

Going back to the past was “wonderful and terrible, very poignant”, said Lisa who, after nursing, worked as a health visitor before going into management.

Against the odds, she returned to work a couple of months later – although she said unlike most people with serious mental illness at least she didn’t have to worry about housing and food.

A campaigner against stigma, Lisa – awarded the CBE for services to the NHS – said she took a long time to “come out” about her mental illness because of the stigma.

Until her early 50s she saw her illness as her “weakness”. But she worked with people who had courageously talked about their experiences and it felt selfish to keep quiet. She thinks others in leadership roles are hiding similar issues.

Stigmatisation of those needing mental health support persists within the NHS, she writes. There’s a lack of empathy towards those who self-harm or are otherwise in crisis; clinicians have low expectations about future prospects for people who experience serious mental illness. The dispropor­tionate squeeze on mental health funding continues despite mental illness being at least 25 per cent of the disease burden of the whole NHS.

Wise and practical, her book was written with would-be public service leaders in mind and covers issues including abuse and whistle­blowing, use of social media, and what to do when things go wrong.

Lisa, who lives in Brighton, recollects living in a nurses’ home in Hampstead, swim­ming in the women’s pond on Hampstead Heath – and being seen as “the naughtiest girl” on her nurse training course at Great Ormond Street.

“I was a bit of a clown and always campaigning about something,” she said.

Being an NHS Chief Executive: What they never told me (or if they did I wasn’t listening). By Lisa Rodrigues, The Laughton Press, £10.99

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