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When whistleblowing and mental health stigma collided

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Two topics that ministers at the Department of Health have trumpeted their commitment to in recent times are better protection for staff who blow the whistle on poor care and the need to end discrimination against people experiencing mental health issues.

 

This week failures in both areas collided in a staggering fashion at a hearing of the Commons Health Committee where Dame Jo Williams, chair of the CQC (pictured), publicly aired some highly personal allegations about a whistleblower’s mental health.

The CQC chair’s claims about board member Kay Sheldon, include some very private (and, according to Sheldon, some inaccurate) details.  

The allegations are shocking in their disregard for the privacy and confidentiality of Sheldon, the CQC board member who has spoken out publicly about alleged failings in the regulator’s leadership.

Some news outlets chose not to report the details of Williams’ comments.So why did we print them?

Admittedly, it was a real dilemma. Most importantly, when contacted by Community Care Sheldon said the comments raised “public interest” issues and she felt Williams had given a “distorted account” of a situation. Sheldon also gave her side of the story.

The most contentious claims centred around an alleged incident that occured after Sheldon left a CQC board meeting early. According to Sheldon she did so due to having had a viral infection that had brought on a “fever and headache.”

“I saw my GP and the in-house occupational health nurse after this, and neither expressed any concerns about my mental health. Neither did my family,” Sheldon said.

“I did not miss any of my various work commitments and the only arena that my mental health was questioned was at senior level in the CQC.”

Secondly, this is a government that is at pains to stress the need to reduce mental health discrimination, including prejudice from employers. As recently as July, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spearheaded a Department of Health drive for “every employer” to act and support people with mental health issues.

“I am calling on every employer large and small to do a mental health stock take. Too many people suffer in silence with mental health issues,” the deputy PM said at the time.

So what does it say when the head of a regulator charged by Clegg’s coalition with protecting vulnerable patients, publicly voices claims that include intimate details about an employee’s alleged health, apparently without the employee’s permission?

Sheldon says her treatment over the last year by the CQC – which received £45m funding from the Department of Health last year – has left her feeling “disregarded and stigmatised”.

Amid all the apparent progress on tackling mental health discrimination within the corridors of Westminster, it’s a stark reminder of the scale of work still to be done.

People going through mental health issues absolutely shouldn’t “suffer in silence”. But nor should an employer, much less the head of a body overseen by the government and charged with protecting patients, be volunteering private details about an employee’s alleged moment of “distress” in a public forum.

If I was found by colleagues in any situation of mental distress, and some have seen me in periods of mental ill health, I would expect basic respect for my privacy and dignity.

At least, after interventions by MPs, Williams withdrew her comments and apologised to the MPs committee. When I contacted Sheldon, who remains on the CQC board, she said she had not received an apology personally.

Ahead of her appearance at the committee, Williams handed in her resignation as CQC chair. She will remain in post until a successor is found.

Perhaps the Department of Health will remind her replacement that the drive to cut mental health stigma isn’t just targeted at the private sector, but also, as its press release stated, ”more traditional organisations in the health and care sector”. Presumably that includes the sector’s watchdog?

About Andy McNicoll

Andy is community editor at Community Care, with a focus on reporting on mental health. He has previously worked for titles focusing on the NHS and substance misuse sectors. You can contact him at andy.mcnicoll@rbi.co.uk