Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Lambs of Silence, Keira Knightley and a Cocaine Chicken.

Amongst other things I had scheduled into my diary for the past week was a quick trip down to the Eileen Skellern Award Ceremony in London. I thought this was to be a relatively straightforward affair and quite good fun. The award evening is jointly hosted by amongst others the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing. This Journal is special for me, and I have been fortunate to have many of my papers published here. The annual award celebrates the contributions individuals have made to mental health nursing and the field of mental health care. The Lifetime Achievement Award celebrates a sustained career contribution. Whilst previous years winners have all been deserving and hugely influential in the field of mental health care, the 2009 award winner was a very special person. She is Helen Bamber. Her evening brought the souls of 100s of people into the room, and in so doing, she was able to demonstrate the importance of bearing witness as a therapeutic endeavour.

Standing in an auditorium full of people she quietly and in the most dignified way imaginable, told us of some of her life work. She studied psychotherapy as an undergraduate at Essex University and at the age of 20 she joined one of the first rehabilitation teams to enter the notorious Belsen concentration camp.

"When we passed through the gate of Bergen-Belsen, we dropped out of life and time."

"We had nothing to go by, no point of reference, not even a 'doctor' who selected those of us who were to be murdered straight away and those who were to be murdered somewhat later."

"Anyone who came to Bergen-Belsen dropped into chaos, into nothingness."

These are the words of three survivors of Bergen-Belsen.
I am ashamed to say that I did not realise that following the liberation of the prisoners, many remained there for a further two years. Like modern day political and economic refugees, they were viewed by their Governments as being a nuisance. It was in her work at Belsen, that Helen first encountered what she called ‘grotesque death’ an experience so dreadful that most people cannot deal with the emotional trauma however much their outward appearance and demeanour belies this. For example she talked of the children who were forced to clear up the mess in the gas chambers. Helen told of the way she and colleagues were many times taken in by the overt optimism on display (often seen in the way these former prisoners participated in competitive sporting activities). However what Helen and her colleagues couldn’t easily do, was to understand their silences.

When our students join the School, I meet with them in the first week and talk about the importance of learning to hear what it is that people say, the importance of understanding how and why they might say things and to recognise the individuals personal zeitgeist. I ask the students to also try and be aware of what is not said. The silences are as important as the words that get spoken, but harder to deal with and sometimes more difficult to understand.

But back to Helen. In 1961, shortly after its inception, she joined Amnesty International. In 1974 she helped establish the Medical Group within the organisation. In recognition of the Medical Group's work within Amnesty International, the British Medical Association established a Working Party on Torture. The BMA's publication on the findings of the Working Party resulted in its first Torture Report and the publication Medicine Betrayed. She continued to work with the Medical Group until 2002 when she stepped down to continue to treat her large caseload of seriously traumatised people. In April 2005 she established the Helen Bamber Foundation to offer support to people who had suffered human rights violations. Helen ended her talk by making us aware of what she was currently involved in. She has since 2008, been a member of the Women Leader’s Council of the United Nations global initiative to fight human trafficking. This work is aimed at positively influencing action in the fight against human trafficking by providing a high-level of professional outreach, with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the areas of women’s issues and human rights.

This work is important and thankfully for all of us, others are now coming forward to carry this work forward. Keira Knightley, the world famous film star, is the new face for Amnesty International’s human rights campaign. The actress is backing a new short film celebrating the 60th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And that chicken, well a man from Guatemala is today under arrest after US customs inspectors at Dulles International Airport discovered he was carrying a cooked chicken stuffed with cocaine worth more than 4,000 US dollars (£2,404).

His intention was to sell this life wrecking drug on the streets of America. I find it hard to believe that often it is still human beings that continue to be responsible for bringing misery to other human beings.