“My heart goes out to younger colleagues”: an interview with our new President

Professor Sheila the Baroness Hollins is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry of Intellectual Disability at St George’s University of London and Honorary Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health, University of Durham.

She has worked as a consultant psychiatrist, teacher, researcher and policymaker in intellectual disability and health. As an Independent Member of the House of Lords, she speaks on mental health, disability issues and adverse childhood experiences. She took up the role of President of the RMBF in September 2020.

We asked Sheila to tell us about her background, her life in medicine, and how she thinks the pandemic will change the medical profession.

When I started studying medicine, my medical school had a maximum quota for women of 12%. The expectation was that I would marry one of the male students, and probably work part-time as a general practitioner to support my husband’s career – aspirations that seemed fine at the time. There was no career guidance or encouragement for me to pursue advanced qualifications, so I was free to follow my own interests.

As a young mother with a disabled child, I found myself training in child psychiatry with a particular interest in childhood disability. To cut a very long story short, I became an academic clinical psychiatrist working with the pioneering Joan Bicknell, who was the first professor in the psychiatry of learning disability. I succeeded her after she became burnt out by the extraordinary marginalisation and neglect of our patient group.

Policy posts in government, travelling fellowships and elected positions at the Royal College of Psychiatrists eventually led to my becoming President. But in the midst of my exciting and unexpected leadership positions, I faced further family challenges. My youngest daughter’s life-threatening injuries, sustained in a criminal attack, filled the front pages of newspapers and television news reports for weeks, and public interest in my personal life threatened to interfere with my professional roles.

For my other Presidencies, my personal struggles have been incidental, but with the RMBF there is a qualitative difference. My experiences are now directly relevant. Finding the strength and resilience to sustain ourselves, our families and those we love, as well as the extraordinary vocation that is being a doctor, is a challenge that can never be taken for granted. We will all need understanding support at different times in our lives.

The last year has been incredibly challenging for the medical profession. What has it been like for me as a retired doctor? To my surprise, I was given back my licence to practice! I felt somewhat daunted in case I was called to help, as it’s some years since I was in clinical practice. But doctors do have some skills and attitudes that are readily generalisable to other areas of need – not least the deep desire to help people.

In addition to continuing my work as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords virtually, I turned my attention to creating wordless resources about Covid-19 with Books Beyond Words, the charity I had co-founded with my autistic son. The first new pictorial story, called Beating the Virus, was loosely based on my son’s experience of having Covid right at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, we have created around 15 free resources specifically for people with learning and communication disabilities. We have started online book clubs for people to share wordless stories and connect with their peers, and contributed to numerous webinars to try to raise awareness of the needs of these often-overlooked groups of people.

Despite my work and my busy role supporting my son and other family members, I have made sure that I walk on our local common every day and keep in touch with wider family and friends online. It has been a strange time of learning and adapting to a new reality and I hope that our lives will evolve in ways that are healthier for ourselves and our planet.

As a now-retired psychiatrist, my heart goes out to younger colleagues in all branches of medicine who are facing the post-Covid period, with its prospect of longer waiting lists, and probably limited investment in innovative new approaches to diagnosis and treatment. All this while they and their colleagues are likely to be feeling burnt out or changed by their experiences on the front line.

There has been much talk in recent years about parity for mental and physical health for our patients, and doctors would be wise to take a similar balanced and kind approach when considering themselves and their colleagues. Friends and family will continue to be key supporters during this period. And doctors are going to need more support than ever before from organisations like the RMBF over the coming years.

Since the beginning of my role as President, all my meetings have been on Zoom! It still feels slightly unreal, as I haven’t met most of the staff face-to-face. But despite this, the stark reality of some of the challenges faced by our beneficiaries comes across loud and clear. I find it remarkable that a charity with really quite limited resources is able to do so much, so imaginatively and so sensitively. After the last grants meeting I just wished the charity’s resources could be quadrupled overnight. Perhaps like me you revised your will this year, or are thinking of doing so, putting your papers in order “just in case”. If you might consider leaving a legacy gift, it could have a profound impact on someone’s life after your own.

Or might you consider volunteering for the RMBF, or getting involved with your local Guild, alongside some of our amazing existing volunteers? Sometimes it’s the hand of friendship, as much as any financial help, that makes the difference for a doctor struggling to come to terms with unexpected health problems or tragedy in their lives.

My first President’s Appeal raised an incredible £93,172, and I want to thank everyone who supported the campaign so generously. For myself, I am looking forward to meeting more RMBF volunteers and beneficiaries, so that I can authentically represent and support the charity’s work during the rest of my Presidency.

In gratitude

Sheila, Baroness Hollins