As the National Health Service reaches its 70th anniversary on 5th July, some of our authors discuss what the NHS means to them. Natasha Devon, Shahroo Izadi, Jonny Benjamin and Adam Kay share their experiences of both working with and being treated by the NHS, and their thoughts on how and why this vital service must be protected.
As I was growing up I didn’t consider the NHS much.
It was only when I became seriously unwell at the age of 20 and was diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia that the NHS suddenly became a vital part of my life.
Ever since then the NHS has continued to be a lifeline for me as I have been hospitalised four times in the last decade after experiencing psychotic episodes.
Today I manage my mental health well, but the risk of relapse and descent into psychosis and the consequent hospitalisation always remains firmly in the back of my mind.
Knowing that our National Health Service exists though provides me with some relief.
The NHS is far from perfect, especially in the area of mental health, but compared to many other countries around the world where national healthcare is either unaffordable or inexistent, I feel extremely grateful to live in a country with free, accessible healthcare.
What I am most thankful for is the 1.5 million individuals who make up our NHS. These individuals have cared, treated and saved not just my life but the lives of my family and my friends when they have been ill.
It is impossible to say how many people the NHS has helped in its 70-year history but no doubt the numbers would be staggering.
For this reason alone, the NHS deserves all the help, support, and funding that it requires.
I have always been proud to say I am British for so many different reasons, but primarily because of our free National Health Service. I truly hope I will be able to express the same sentiment throughout the next 70 years of the NHS’ presence.
I’ll never forget talking to a young person originally from a developing country where healthcare is a ‘luxury’ only available to those who can afford it. They described the recent death of their father, at home, with no medication to ease his agony. ‘What did he die of?’ I asked. They looked at me like this was the strangest question anyone has ever uttered. It dawned on me that they couldn't know. Where they came from, people just died of a nameless malaise, often far, far too young, leaving grief and devastation in their wake.
I always think of that conversation during the frequent episodes of broadcast ‘debate’ over whether a group of people ‘deserve’ NHS care. When times are tough financially, it’s the easiest thing in the world to make two groups of people feeling the effects turn on one another. So it is that smokers, drinkers, the obese, immigrants, the young and the old have lines of people queuing up to tell them they’re a burden to society and should pay for their own healthcare.
Yet, however compelling the arguments might be, the fact is that free healthcare for all must mean exactly that. To make an exception represents a chink through which the armour of our glorious NHS can be entirely eroded. If we deny healthcare to the obese, next it’ll be people who live in cities, the stressed or those who don’t quite manage to drink eight litres of water per day. To be allowed healthcare and an education is a fundamental cornerstone of equality. It gives everyone a sporting chance at life.
Today, the NHS is expected to do more with less people power or resources, and is then being blamed when the net result is long waiting lists or lack of beds. Conditions have become more and more challenging for the doctors and nurses holding the system together, not least of all from a mental health perspective. In my book A Beginner's Guide to Being Mental, I interviewed Dr Adam Kay, who was passionate about and excellent at his job working in an NHS hospital and yet was forced out of the profession when the sheer force of the demands placed on his time and expertise put unbearable amounts of pressure on his wellbeing.
Saying it’s the NHS’ organisational structure which is at fault is like saying a car is broken because it’s run out of fuel. Bottom line - it needs more money and urgently if it’s to reach the next landmark of 80 years.
My first placement out of university was as an Assistant Psychologist at a NHS Substance Misuse Service in Willesden Junction. Every day, without exception, I was in awe of the passion, commitment, professionalism and expertise demonstrated by nurses, keyworkers, doctors, receptionists, cleaners, volunteers and outreach workers. This was despite being squeezed into a crumbling, tiny old building, managing incredibly high caseloads of very distressed clients and having to just accept the reality of ever decreasing budgets.
Those who came in to get help with their drug use and mental health issues would never have known the pressure the staff were under. They were always given the time, attention and non-judgmental consideration they deserved. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have begun my career with the NHS, as I hold myself to a much higher standard professionally and personally than I would have done otherwise.
Adam Kay, author of This is Going to Hurt
In this extract from the afterword of This is Going to Hurt, Adam talks about the love for the NHS he saw on his book tour, and what we can all do to help:
I learned so much – that love for the health service runs deeper than any religion; that it transcends political belief and party membership; that if an audience has an average age over seventy then they probably won’t enjoy the “degloving” story.
At the end of every talk, I’d take questions, and the same one always came up: “What can I do to help?” I spoke about the value of campaigning locally, of writing to papers, contacting MPs, the power of social media, of joining progressive alliances and helping to crowd-fund legal challenges.
A few days into the tour, I started to notice just how many people would preface their questions and comments to me with ’my son/daughter/partner/neighbour/mother/best friend/uncle works for the NHS.’ I began asking for a show of hands to see who had some kind of direct connection with NHS staff – there would only ever be one or two people in the room who kept their hands down. Often none. It makes sense, of course – the NHS employs the best part of 1.5 million people. And I realised there was a simpler, better answer to “What can I do to help?” One we can all do, that takes very little effort.
Ask them how their day was.
They’ll say ’fine’ and change the subject, or pull focus with some funny anecdote or other. But let them understand they’ve always got someone to talk to: someone who understands that the days are never actually just ’fine’, that the nature of illness means more bad things happen at work than good. And keep on asking. Give them that opportunity to offload at the end of every shift, whether it’s a tiny irritation, a rant or a full-on sob.
Chip away at the ingrained notion that doctors and nurses don’t need to, or shouldn’t, talk about these things – because that same ingrained notion is partly responsible for the huge rise in people leaving the profession, the rise in stress-related absence and illness among those who stay, and the tragic rise in suicide amongst those who find it just too much. We all need someone to talk to. Don’t let them bottle it up. Let them know you’re there. Care for the carer.
Just because they’ve got a stethoscope round their neck and a decent line in gallows humour, they’re still just that teenager who arbitrarily put a tick next to “medicine” on their UCAS form. Just a human as fragile as anyone.