Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cyclone: Alert, Not Alarmed

Dear Mum and Dad (and anyone else who is interested),

outlookIn a couple of days you may see on the news that a cyclone has spun-up out in the Coral Sea. At the time of writing the cyclone is predicted but not named. The forecast map (see bottom of the page) suggests that Townsville is more likely to cop it than us.

I think it’s a good idea to put you as fully in the picture as I can. We kind of like the way cyclones get named: it seems to give them each a distinct personality. We’ve had a few cross the coast nearby since we moved to Cairns.

katrinaCyclone Katrina mucked around for a couple of weeks, but never got organised enough to cross the coast as a big blow. Katrina did not cause any deaths in Australia, but a man in Vanuatu lost his life in her rough seas, and hundreds of homes in the Solomon Islands were damaged or destroyed. We were OK in Australia.

800px-New_Orleans_ElevationsCyclone Katrina was much more benign than Hurricane Katrina. The other difference is that although Cairns is not a long way above the high tide mark, at least parts of it are not below the high tide mark as New Orleans is. That’s why so many people died because of Hurricane Katrina: it was not the wind, it was the water. That’s true of most cyclone deaths: flooding and drowning is where most danger lies.

CairnsHospital

Cairns Hospital, 165-171 Esplanade

Luckily we do not own a house on the beach front (there’s also the small matter of not having a lazy couple of million dollars lying around). Storm surges that coincide with cyclones can be a bit of a worry, but at least our place is not in a red zone like the local hospital. Feel free to check our address using storm tide surge address search/evacuation maps here or (just in case the council’s website goes offline) here.

justinThere was heaps of flooding after Cyclone Justin: I remember water lying around for days. Justin is responsible for lost lives In Papua New Guinea and a boat at sea. Closer to home an Innisfail boy was electrocuted by power lines bought down by the cyclone, and a lady was caught in a landslide near Townsville. All that rain and the buffeting wind was bad for crops and trees (some of which fell on to homes).

larryAfter Cyclone Larry we did not have power for five days. It’s amazing how often we still automatically reached for the light switch when entering a room. The reflex of a life time of luxury, I guess. Did you know that about 25% of the world’s population does not have electricity? Info about that here. Going a few days without electricity is a nuisance, but we know it will always come back on. We are better-off than many.

steveCyclone Steve made things a bit soggy for a few days too. The Barron Falls were pumping – if we get another cyclone crossing the coast be sure to checkout the webcam here for a view of the falls in full flood – spectacular! All the tourist operators trot out this cliché at this time of year: “You can’t have rainforest without rain!” It is the wet tropics, after all.

yasiCyclone Yasi looked like it was going to give Cairns a shake-up: so much so they even evacuated the hospitals - the biggest hospital evacuation in Australia’s history. Cairns was lucky that Yasi took a slight turn south before crossing the coast: Tully, Cardwell and Mission Beach really copped a belting though. Yasi was a big, powerful cyclone, but did not directly kill anyone. There was one indirect death: a young man suffocated after bringing a generator inside.

header_logoWe are used to preparing for cyclone season. Every year the Cairns City Council issues information about preparing for cyclones – it’s just part of the annual ritual. we have done it 19 times now.

We have enough food to last a few days. We have containers to store water in, if required. We have batteries for the radio, so we can stay informed about what’s going on if the power goes out. We live high above sea level. We take cyclones seriously. We are prepared.

imagesHowever, we don’t take the hyped-up TV coverage seriously. If the TV shows start shipping their main in-studio people up to Cairns for live crosses please switch of the telly. These shows need to create drama and suspense to make the story compelling, but the truth of it that it’s just weather. Weather that we’re used to. Weather that will be nuisance to many and maybe even dangerous to a few. However, the reality is that it will be more dangerous to drive to the airport to pick you up when you next visit than it is to live in a city with strict building regulations. Houses can still sustain major damage of course, but they don’t blow away anymore. Those images of houses completely blown away by Cyclone Tracy are a thing of the past: Tracy changed building codes right across the Australian tropics.

forecastPlease don’t be worried. Please don’t get seduced by the inevitable media hype. I’ll call/text when I can, and give live updates on Twitter using the @WePublicHealth handle if a cyclone comes close to Cairns this week, otherwise i will use my usual @meta4RN handle. The purpose of Tweeting will to be to provide a non-alarmist account of what’s going-on. The mainstream media are not very good at this, so (to borrow a term from Melissa Sweet ) it is up to citizen journalists to do so.

Well, citizen journalists and the Bureau of Meteorology, that is: www.bom.gov.au

Speak soon.

love, Paul

27th January 2014

Perinatal Mental Health: A Good News Story

diabetes, for instance

diabetes, for instance

Most health messages are such a downer, surely there are many people who will either switch-off from the message, or become unduly alarmed. Compare health marketing to commercial marketing and it’s no wonder obesity is rising. Put frankly, Coca-Cola and McDonalds have better ads: they’re full of fun and optimism:

Things Go Better With Coke!  

McDonalds – I’m Lovin’ It! 

Don’t get me wrong: depression is a bugger of a thing, and perinatal mood disorders are especially poorly timed. Looking after a pregnancy/baby is tricky enough without tossing in anxiety and/or depression.

However, at the risk of sounding all Pollyanna about it, there are some good news stories we can talk about when discussing perinatal mental health. Here’s a small list of things I’d like mentioned in every antenatal class/similar forum for parents-to-be/new parents:

IMG_0328[1] 6 in 7 new mothers and 19 in 20 new fathers will not experience perinatal depression. Are there any other gambles that give you better odds?

[2] Symptoms are usually easy to recognise. There’s even a free online anonymous self-scoring tool available: justspeakup.com.au/epds

[3] If somebody is not sure how to start a conversation about mental health with their midwife, doctor or child health nurse, there’s a handy online tool to help build a checklist of things to mention: docready.org

[4] Information and resources are easy to find. In Australia the “big five” are:

[5] Support is easy to find too:

[6] There are a range of treatment options: it’s not a matter of  “one size fits all”.

[7] If required, there are some medications that can be used in pregnancy and/or breastfeeding.

[8] Recovery rates for postnatal depression are very good.

[9] Some places have access to specialist perinatal mental health clinicians.

[10] Mental health clinicians are not interested in stealing the baby. In fact, mental health clinicians seem quite pleased with themselves when they get to see parents and infants connecting and communicating with each other.

[11] If attachment between parent and baby does not happen as easily as expected (this happens a fair bit with anxiety and/or depression), there are video guides to help, for example: Baby Cues Also, in some towns and cities (especially those with a perinatal and infant mental health nurse), there are clinical staff who can help with this communication/attachment/bonding stuff too.

What’s This About Exactly?

During the week a couple of new mums declined referral to see a nurse (me) from the consultation liaison psychiatry service because they had preconceptions about how negative the experience would be. It’s not absolutely necessary for every parent to see a mental health specialist, of course, but I think we (that’s “we the health professionals”) should start fishing-around for ways to better describe the good news stories about perinatal mental health.

diabetes, that is

diabetes, that is

If Coca-Cola and McDonalds can convey a sense of fun and optimism out of the products they sell, surely we can convey a sense of fun and optimism out of the services we provide. We have something that’s much better than the offerings of either Coca-Cola or McDonalds, so let’s reorientate the language and recalibrate expectations by using positive language.

Maybe when perinatal and infant mental health (PIMH) services in Queensland are re-established, we can re-launch with an upbeat attitude and slogan:

 PIMH for a healthy head-start!

End

What are your ideas for upbeat slogans and messages? Please add them in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 25th January 2014

Nursing’s Peculiar Privilege

Dear Reader: please don’t read this blog post if you are offended by strong swear words or find talk of suicide a trigger for unsettling/risky thoughts. Kind Regards, Paul.

Who is Going Behind the Curtains?

Working over Christmas and New Year made me especially cognisant of one of the peculiar privileges that we nurses have: we spend a lot of one-to-one time with the person who is medically/surgically recovering after a suicide attempt. My current role is Consultation Liaison Mental Health Nurse – a role that provides mental health assessment, support and education in a general hospital (more info about the role here). When the person is admitted to the general hospital after a non-fatal suicide attempt we are asked to be involved in planning and providing their care.

There are few things more privileged and more important than spending time with the person who is alive after deciding not to be. I do worry that this role is sometimes delegated to the least qualified (and lowest paid) member of frontline clinical care: the Assistant In Nursing (AIN) when there is “nursing special” in place (i.e.: when there are concerns that the person may abscond and/or harm themselves again).

Naturally, being an AIN does not mean you are incapable of sensitive, compassionate, safe care. I just think that “going behind the curtains” to assist in holding and containing the often very strong emotions of the person who has survived suicide is incredibly important. I don’t feel comfortable that someone without mental health qualifications or clinical supervision is tasked with sitting at the bedside for hours at a time. It may not be good for the either the person/patient or the AIN.

Suicide rates per year. Chart courtesy of www.mindframe-media.info

Suicide rates per year. Chart courtesy of http://www.mindframe-media.info

Parallel Processes

In clinical supervision we often explore the parallel processes and how they apply to our clinical work. When working in perinatal mental health I aimed for the therapeutic relationship to be a template for the parent-child relationship: kind and nurturing, responsive and interactive, empowering, educative and enjoyable. The idea being that, at some level, the qualities/values that inform the therapeutic relationship can then have a knock-on effect for the relationship the parent has with their baby. Not many perinatal mental health clinicians have an abrupt, cold, clinical style of interacting with their clients: they tend to be warm, gentle communicators.

When nursing the person who has survived suicide we need to think about parallel processes again. Julie Sharrock (a rock star of consultation liaison nursing) first introduced me to the phrase “holding and containing” as a part of the therapeutic relationship. Traditionally the notion of holding and containing has been attributed as a function of the inpatient setting/building: a place to keep people safe. Julie introduced it to me as a way to keep people safe, by reframing it as a concept for interpersonal therapy. That is, we nurses can assist and model the act of holding and containing difficult emotions.

For the person who has unexpectedly found themselves alive and in hospital after intending to end life, we may need to hold and contain the person physically for a short time, but (to my way of thinking) it is even more important to support the person to hold and contain their thoughts and feelings.

Thoughts are slippery, and prone to be dropped.

Feelings are brittle, and prone to cracking.

Holding and containing such difficult-to-secure, fragile things is fraught: the clinician needs their thoughts and emotions held and contained too. Its a parallel process: as I’ve discussed previously we need to nurture the nurturers.

Suicide rates per age group (2010). Chart courtesy of www.mindframe-media.info

Suicide rates per age group (2010). Chart courtesy of http://www.mindframe-media.info

Profound Moments

Some of the most profound moments of my working life have occurred while supporting the person who has survived suicide.

The incredibly dark humour: “I’m such a fucking loser I can’t even kill myself properly!” said the very nice man. He was not laughing out loud, but smiling at the grim absurdity of his situation. He was alive, but physically worse-off than when he decided to die: now fractured, urinating through a tube, receiving fluids and antibiotics via an IV line. More wounds. More pain. Yet, despite the extra physical insults, he was pleased that he had survived.

The worry: “Is my brain OK? I feel really agitated and confused.” asked the lady who had been in intensive care for a few days. Her brain was OK in the long-term, the distress she was experiencing was mostly short-term stuff:  delirium is really common amongst ICU patients. Hypoxic patients aren’t so lucky: they sometimes never recover the former function of their brain.

“You are the biggest fucking cunt that has ever existed in the whole world!”, said the man after being told he was unable to leave hospital. I was filling-in paperwork that would mean he was an involuntary patient as per the Mental Health Act. I didn’t think I was being particularly nasty. The mental health act is handy because there are times when I need to say, “It seems to me that you don’t have the capacity to keep yourself safe at the moment. So,  I’ll take some of the responsibility of keeping you safe for now. Naturally, we will hand the job back to you when you come good.” Using that framework, filling-in the paperwork for the mental health act is sometimes the most nurturing thing I can do. That’s why i was genuinely surprised, not offended, when he said, “You are the biggest fucking cunt that has ever existed in the whole world!” I asked, “Really? Worse than Hitler?” He laughed and said, “Yeah, Definitely.” I laughed too. Take that Hitler.

The person who had two high perceived lethality, but fortunately non-fatal, attempts to take his life in the fortnight before we met reworded Shakespeare’s famous opening line to Hamlet. Instead of saying, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, he said, “After what I have experienced in hospital, I now think that it is better to have a difficult life rather than no life at all.” I was so pleased to hear him think that way, and at the same time felt so sad for those people who do not have the opportunity to reconsider: those people that bypass the hospital wards and go straight to the morgue.

These are profound moments in the lives of people.

Nurses, myself included, have the peculiar privilege of being with the people who are experiencing the most important days of their life: the first few days of life that they planned not to have.

Let’s not take that peculiar privilege of nursing lightly.

In Closing

Talking and thinking about suicide can be distressing. Australians can access support via:

 Lifeline – 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

MindHealthConnect www.mindhealthconnect.org.au

phone_hotline-40Outside of Australia and not sure where to get support? Google usually displays a red telephone icon and your country’s suicide support phone number when searching for a suicide-related topic.

As always, comments and feedback on the blog post is welcome. Suicide can be a sensitive topic to comment on, and this blog is the public arena; so, before wording your comment, please check-out this: Mindframe guide

Paul McNamara, 19th January 2014