Sunday, 15 January 2012

C'est la vie, Rubber Chickens and the Normality Test, and Where the Dickens Weir Hughes is the Regulation of Nursing?

It’s funny how things happen. In the middle of last week, catching up on Christmas reading, I came across a report in the British Medical Journal which claimed that brain functioning can begin to deteriorate once we turned 45. The study found that mental reasoning declined by 3.6% in both men and women aged 45-49. The study involved over 7,000 male and female civil servants aged between 45 and 70 and was run over a 10-year period. Participants were tested on their memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension skills. A faster cognitive decline was recorded in older individuals with a 9.6% loss in men aged 65-70 and 7.4% in women of the same age. The study highlighted that adopting a healthy lifestyle helped in slowing any cognitive decline. The research was led by Francine Grodstein, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard, Boston. Her research focuses on healthy aging, particularly in women. Interestingly, her primary research base is the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), where she leads the study of cognitive function among the oldest participants.

This sparked a particular stream of consciousness to draw upon for this week’s blog; unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out in the way you think it should, but c’est la via would be my simple existential observation. News of the unwanted kind intervened with my plans. I heard on Thursday, of the death of the wonderful mental health campaigner John McCarthy, who died aged just 61. John was the founder of the mental health organisation Mad Pride Ireland. He spent vast amounts of his own money trying to challenge the stigma around mental illness and organised happy, crazy Mad Pride family events. These were often massive outdoor parties where everyone who went was given a ‘normality test' by clowns using rubber chicken ‘normality detectors'. No one has yet passed the test.

I first met John at a mental health conference hosted at Dublin City University in 2007. This conference was the first in a series of Health 4 Life Conferences. The focus was on exploring critical perspectives and creative engagement in psychosocial health. The conference was very different from others I had been part of. The conference participants included the traditional mental health nursing academic greats, Phil, John, Liam, Dawn, Richard, Poppy, (me) and unbelievably Thomas Szasz (of The Myth of Mental Illness and The Manufacture of Madness fame), but equally half the audience were service users and carers. John was part of this group and his approach to challenge and questioning set the tone for a fantastic conference experience for all.

In life, John was slightly irreverent, passionate and hilariously rude. He wore his long, white hair in a ponytail, (and yes we were able to exchange hair care tips over the three days of the conference). John also had motor neurone disease —a cruel and relentless illness. He brought great awareness to the struggle of those facing the illness, but always maintained that mental illness was worse suffering. In August 2011 he wrote that:

"Having spiritual disquiet; depression is the most crippling method of destroying a human being. Pain in the body can be handled so much easier than pain in the spirit. I will take the last few years I have with creeping paralysis, but with my spirit growing, rather than 20 years with depression and my spirit dying. I have been there, that place of self isolation. That was truly awful."

Last week I was also due to be in London to meet the Nursing and Midwifery Council Chief Executive Professor Dikon Weir-Hughes. However, the meeting was cancelled, and last Thursday he resigned from his post for ‘personal reasons’ – not that there is any connection between the two events. Likewise, I am sure his resignation has nothing to do with the rather critical report on the way the NMC has undertaken its responsibilities for Fitness for Practice investigations and hearings published by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHREC) in late November 2011. CHREC promotes the health and well-being of patients and the public in the regulation of health professionals. They scrutinise and oversee the work of the nine regulatory bodies that set standards for training and conduct of health professionals.

The audit report was less than complimentary about the progress made to date by the NMC in modernizing itself and its processes. Some would say (me included) that the audit report was not the most helpful of outcomes for the NMC at this stage of its restructuring. I guess John McCarthy, in his wise way, would have been more outspoken and direct and would have asked the question of old: 'if CHRE regulates the NMC, who regulates the CHRE and who regulates the regulator and shouldn't the regulator be regulated?'

And rest in peace now John, but I think the world is going to be a less colourful place without you.