BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is Professor Simon Wessely, he's the first ever psychiatrist to be awarded a Regius professorship, a rare honor bestowed by the queen.
And over the course of his 30 year career, he's earned an international reputation for pioneering research and public engagement. Born in Sheffield to a father who'd come to Britain in 1939 on the Kindertransport, he says his passion for psychiatry is fired by its blend of the biological, psychological and social. His contribution to his specialism includes plenty of each. He's researched the no man's land between the brain and mind and led progressive and, some might say controversial work on chronic fatigue syndrome.
He's also explored the way military life shapes people. He received a knighthood for his work in this area, which includes studies of Gulf War Syndrome, compiling a history of shell shock and finding what is now the King's Center for Military Health Research. More recently, he completed a term as president of the Royal Society of Medicine, the first psychiatrist to occupy the post, and in 2017 he led a long overdue review of the Mental Health Act. He says in a world given to sound bites, mine would be to ensure that psychiatry is a visible, credible and useful.
Professor Simon Wessely, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Oh, thank you very much. I'm stunned by the intro. Well, you're very welcome at Simon today. The stigma around mental health and mental illness seems to be breaking down. The concept of the stiff upper lip, which used to be prevalent, seems very out of touch with current thinking. That's got to be progress, hasn't it?
Yes, it has. Stigma has gone down, which is a good thing. Many more people are willing to present now with mental disorders. But you don't have to look very far below the surface to realise that it's perhaps not changed as much as we think. And still, misunderstanding stigma and prejudice is still there. We don't have yet a parity of steam and equality between the physical and psychological in the way that we will approach them or fund them. We're not there yet, but it's it's so much better than when I started.
Of course, I know that you said about your work, if you're any good at it, it won't be long before somebody tells you something they've never told anyone else before. I mean, that must be an incredible moment. How does it feel when someone says something like that with you?
Well, it depends what they say, of course. And I think that is what psychiatrists do, that they do get into that relationship where people can trust you is something that may be frightening or unpalatable or they're worried that you will, you know, hate them for it or whatever. But something that is so personal they haven't been able to share it with their family or anyone else. And it's a privilege. And I also think that's never going to go away.
People worry about, oh, everything will be taken over by computers and AI and digitalisation, quite a lot of medicine. Well, and a lot of psychiatry will go digital, but nothing will replace that, particularly when people are in the worst moments of their lives, as they sometimes are when we see them.
Well, it's time to dive into your disc's No.1 one, then what are we going to hear and why have you chosen it today?
I did two or three years of general medicine up in Newcastle and those days were quite tough. We were it was common that you would go to work on Friday and you would finish work on Monday evening. And so the hours were pretty punishing and crippling. And the way we got over that without cracking up really was through making very strong, intense friendships very quickly. And so the music is from that is from the Blues Brothers, which was very big at that time.
And it's Aretha Franklin singing Think and also illustrate in the lyric. She says, I ain't no psychiatrist, I ain't no doctor with a degree. And I was a doctor with a degree, but I wasn't at that time a psychiatrist. So I was thinking about it. And it's just also brilliant.
Think.Think. Think. Think. You think. Think. Think about it. You better think. Think about what you're trying to do to me. Yeah think. Let 's go back, let's go back to. I didn't even know the man so much, but I like when read.
And I'll take my kids to.
Aretha Franklin and think from the soundtrack to the Blues Brothers Simon Wessely, it still is much too soon to really assess what the impact of covid-19 will be on the population's mental health. But the early signs aren't looking good by any measure. Why is the virus taking such a toll on our emotional well-being?
Do you think all crises create fear and covid creates fear for all the obvious reasons. But we get by our fear, through our social relationships with people. But covid creates the fear and the threat. But then our reactions to it and how we have to manage it, destroy the very things that get us through difficult times at the time when we need them most. And that's why social distancing is such a toxic thing for mental health.
You've said before that resilience is somewhat of a common thread in much of the work that you've done and that people are generally tougher than we might think. But this quality is often underestimated by politicians and policymakers.
Why is that time and time again, and particularly my dealings with often senior politicians and so on, you find they're really worried that we can't tell the public this because they'll panic. And actually panic is very, very unusual in the face of threat. It happens in very specific circumstances. And the classic one is a fire in a crowded nightclub where you do get panic, but normally you don't. Next time you see a picture of the aftermath of that, say, a terrorist incident and you see people running out of a building towards the camera, if you let the camera run, you will then see behind them are people in uniform telling them to run and get moving.
People as often natural instinct is to do the opposite is to go and lend a hand and to help. So it's not instinctive that we panic.
Simon, when he was starting out a treatment called psychological debriefing, was often used to help people who had just experienced a traumatic event. And that meant that counsellors were sometimes on the scene of those events sent to offer immediate support. But over the years, studies went on to show that that kind of early intervention can actually be harmful. Why?
We have defense mechanisms for a reason and that soon after a terrible event, you know, the best thing to do is, is to think about how are you going to get home? Whereas a family, how can I communicate with them? Incredibly important, but not dwell on some of the horrible things that you've seen. It's too early. It also sends out a message to people that you've got a professional problem that needs professional help. And it's part of the kind of medicalization of ordinary life that is, you know, happened in the last 20 years.
And that's not actually helpful to you. You will get better and you realize you get better through guess what, talking to your friends, family, colleagues, GPE, your vicar or whatever. And people like me should only come in if you're still feeling that way, maybe six, 10, 12 weeks later saying it's time to make some room for the music.
Your second disc today. Tell us about this selection. My mother was a professional violinist and she ran a string quartet. One of the pieces they used to play was Smetana Quartet. And when my mother died, we organized a memorial concert and we the Dante Quartet, who my parents knew came and they played this music.
Oh. Part of Smetana String Quartet No. One in E Minor performed by the Danti Quartet, so Sam and Wesley were born in Sheffield.
Your father Rudolph, however, was brought up in Prague. He came to the UK on the Kindertransport. That was an initiative which rescued Jewish children from the Nazis. And like so many others on those trains, very sadly, he left his family behind and never saw them again. Was he able to find out what happened to them?
His mother and his young cousin, who had moved in with his parents, were deported to Auschwitz in September 43 and murdered on arrival. We never quite sure at that time what had happened to his father. It turned out later that he had been sent back to the ghetto and then put on the same train with his wife and his niece. And he also had been gassed on arrival at Auschwitz on the same day.
So you were an only child when you were growing up. How much did your father share with you about his past?
I can't say it was the dominant feature of my childhood. The main thing I remember was I wasn't allowed to go to Spain on holiday with some friends. And I got very upset and said, why? And they said, well, because it's run by a fascist and fascists are very bad people and we don't go to Spain. And I remember my father was a child. Refugee is not a Holocaust survivor. The most disturbing thing that happened to him during those years was actually when he was in the Navy, when he was sunk twice.
And the second time was very dreadful and he lost all his hair, though the ship had overturned and he was rescued 24 hours later and he had nightmares about that for the rest of his life. I mean, he wasn't ill in any way, didn't need any help and didn't have PTSD. But he had a bad war and had nightmares about it.
I know that you described your childhood as very happy. Yes, it was. Now, my parents were they were an odd couple. Yes, they definitely were. For example, my mother couldn't cook, didn't cook and never did. And in my entire life, I don't think I ever had a meal that she cooked ever. So my father did all the shopping, prepack food at Marks and Spencers. And we would go to Rudolf's Delicatessen and I would go with him once a week.
He was a terrible cook as well.
And you've said that your mother, Wendy, was a talented musician? Yes, she was. She was a founding member of the National Youth Orchestra. But she also was, I wouldn't say trouble, but she always knew that her parents were always quite distant to her. She I don't think she did. She didn't have a very happy childhood and was rescued by her music. And then she found out that the person she thought was her father was not and her uncle was actually her father.
And no one would tell her and never did who her mother was.
Oh, and and then I suppose I can say this now, that when my father died and I was looking over, I collected his papers, which were all in perfect order. I knew there would be. And there was letters there from him to my mother and and I realised that these were written shortly after I was born. My mother left him and I never knew this ever. And she was gone for four months. And the letters were my father desperate to get her back.
And she did come back and it dawned on me, maybe that's why my father was always he was so pleased to have her back that he was always go out of his way to do all the shopping and all the cooking and things like that. I never had any inkling of that at all. And as I say, Mum came out when I was six months old. So I clearly, obviously absolutely no recollection of this at all. And certainly it was never spoken about.
I mean, it was just simply and I was never aware of anything. Difficulties in my parents relationship.
It's time for some more music disc No3. What's it going to be and why have you chosen it?
My mother, as I said, was by this time a professional musician. And she made me play an instrument. So I had to play the flute. And when I was 15, I got my first professional gig and I was paid 20 quid to do six nights of Cossey fantasy that my mother was leading the orchestra. So that's obviously why I got the gig. And there's not much second flute in Cossy, I'm afraid so. I spent much of the time.
You're in the pits so I could see you doing my homework. Except when this came on and every night I thought what I was doing and listened.
This. So while the CEO of Intel from Mozart's Cosi fan, Tutti, performed by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Walter Berry and Krista Ludvik with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Kabam, Simon Wessely, you read History of Art and Medical Sciences at Cambridge University. How did you settle in once you got there?
Well, originally, not very well, actually. I'd been at a grammar school, but that had changed to be in a comprehensive school. And the college I was at was mainly public school. And I didn't really in that first term, I was lonely and I was certainly homesick. And in fact, I went home at one stage and my parents kind of put up with me for a few days and then told me to go back and I went back and and things settle down when I kind of I think it was the exams at the end of that term.
And I realized that actually I was just the same as the other students there. And, you know, I shouldn't be so slightly nervous of them. I think I was. And after that, it was fine.
You went on to complete your clinical studies at Oxford. At what point and why? We drawn to psychiatry at medical school.
The thing that turned me on started this possibility was actually Anthony Clair, the great psychiatrist of that period indeed of any period. And he wrote a book called Psychiatry in Descent that came out when I was at medical school. And I found it really exciting that here was a discipline that was not afraid to challenge itself. It was all about the arguments. And there are always arguments in psychiatry. We love an argument and also that they were really accessible to other people.
So he was talking about when the sadness became depression and how do we classify mental disorders? Should we classify them at all? And then I liked the consultants, one, because they knew the names of all their patients, which wasn't common always. And second was because they would ask me a question. And bizarrely, they were actually interested in my answer, whereas in the rest of the medicine they would ask you, what are the nine causes of jaundice to show that you're an ignorant medical student because you only remembered eight.
And I like that when you decided that you wanted to specialize in psychiatry. Some of the consultants at medical school actually tried to talk you out of it. Why?
We are lower down in the kind of hierarchy of bits of medicine. Sometimes well-meaning people say things like, well, you're too good for psychiatry, that you will be just as mad as your patient. That's sometimes said medicine is a tribe as well. And, you know, it's about doing things. It's about running around. It's about making instant decisions and using lots of jargon. And psychiatry isn't so we don't run. We kind of walk. You know, things happen much more slowly in psychiatry.
You have to be much more patient.
So when it's time to take a moment for some more music now, desk number four, maybe chosen this when I was at some of the Mausi, but when I was at the Maudsley, a junior doctor call me in because they had a very disturbed patient and they needed a second opinion. And I was the Rota doctor that day for the second opinion. So I came along to the ward and it was quite a lot of commotion and noise. But I formed a first opinion was the show who called me was uncommonly attractive and that was Claire and that was my first meeting with Claire, probably the least romantic meeting ever in history.
I'm glad you said that.
Yes, but we went on our first date about two weeks later, and we got engaged in about three months at a wedding in Switzerland and we were married later that year. But the first date we had was to see the French jazz classic round midnight. I could cry. Salty's. Where have I been all these years? Little while. Tell me now, how long has this been going on for?
Chill's. My spine and some thrills. I can't define. Listen, sweet. I will give. How long has this been going on? How long has this been going on?
Happily and much more appropriate mood than your initial meeting as general, mostly for your wife, Claire, from the soundtrack to around midnight Dexter Gordon and Lonette McKee. Sir Simon, in the late 80s, he worked as a trainee psychiatrist in the National Hospital for Neurology in London. And that marked the beginning of your research into chronic fatigue syndrome. What interested you in the condition to begin with?
It doesn't have a natural home. So, Lauren, if you on your way home start to have a heart attack, you will see a cardiologist. And if I if this interview is so terrible that I give you post-traumatic stress disorder, you would see a psychiatrist. That's how it works. But if in this condition, it's not clear who you should see, nobody claims it. And therefore, there's no obvious safe place for patients to be. And the back story comes from these newspaper headlines that were even then saying things like virus research, doctors finally prove shirkers really are sick.
So the view was, you know, you were going to be considered a shirker, a malingerer making it all up. And I suppose I thought perhaps naively at that time that we could do some good here because I thought, well, we can't treat people worse. They weren't getting any treatment at all. But it became, as I mentioned, the controversies that were there never went away. And it became an unpleasant area to be specializing in, not clinically.
The patients were fine. And to this day I still see them. I must have seen, I don't know, well over a thousand by now. And I wouldn't do that if it wasn't rewarding. But the public side of it became very toxic. Yes.
I mean, you never discovered a cure, but certainly pioneered some treatments with some success. Yes. But you received hate mail, even death threats.
Well, that's true, but that wasn't really the problem. These things happen to lots of people. It was more the constant scrutiny, the pressure, the stalking, the, you know, referrals to regulatory bodies. It was that kind of things that was the most difficult to bear. And I just. Where was that coming from?
Was coming from some groups of people, not, as I say, not from my patients at all, but from the groups who didn't want you there because of what you represented. And certainly you can understand why people get very cross and very frustrated and feel denigrated by that kind of dichotomy, that if my problem was remotely psychological or social or psychiatric, it would mean I'm not ill. It would mean I'm actually making it up. And I think it does come down to that fear and it's a reasonable fear that people had.
But it wasn't reasonable, I think, to project it onto myself and my colleagues who were not part of that and who ironically, we were the people in the hospital who didn't believe that this was a genuine illness.
It must have been an incredibly stressful time for you going through all that and your colleagues, I mean, you said there was there was a moment that you remember clearly that it was time to stop.
Yes, it was in 2000. And I was at a meeting in America, NIH, the National Institute for Health, which is the epicenter of medical research around the world, certainly with the biggest. And it was, you know, unpleasant. The atmosphere was very hostile. And I remember taking the decision there that I just thought, I don't really want to do this anymore. I don't want to have to defend what I do. And so I took that decision.
I went back to the airports afterwards and for the first time in my life, I got upgraded. I thought that must be a sign from heaven that this is meant to be visible means examine.
What are we going to hear next and why have you chosen it?
We went to see Hamilton three or four years ago and I just thought this was just genius. And when we came back, we all went out for dinner, the whole family and all we did was argue about what we've just seen.
And when that happens, you know, you're in the presence of great art to Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room diametrically opposed. Oh, they emerged with the compromise. Having open doors that were previously closed. The immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power, a system that can shape however we want. Different opinions emerge with the nation's capital.
Here's the piece de resistance, what was in the room where we were in the room where it happens from the musical Hamilton, composed by Lin Manuel Miranda and performed by Leslie Odom Jr. and the original Broadway cast. So, Sam Wesley, by the mid 1990s, you turned your professional attention to Gulf War Syndrome. Now, this first came to light after soldiers returning from the 1991 Gulf War went on to suffer fatigue, pain and breathing problems. And in your research, you compared the experiences of these soldiers to soldiers who had served in Bosnia.
How receptive, I wonder, were the mood to your comparison study?
Well, the first not at all, actually. And one minister I won't name said I don't want to do research in this. In my opinion, research always makes things worse. I remember that very well. But we went over to America and went to Department of Defense and said, look, you've got this problem big time and we think we do, too. Wouldn't it be nice if you gave us the money to compare the U.S. and the U.K. and they said, yes, that would be nice.
So came back with the grant and then, of course, the military basically had to do the research because the questions got asked in parliament. Why weren't they doing this? We never really found out what it was due to. But in the end, we do you know, that's what happens in research. We made sure that measures were taken next time that would reduce the chances of this happening, which they did, and also to monitor outcomes from the start.
And then that work continues to this day because obviously now we're focusing a lot on physical and psychological injuries in those who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And people have kind of forgotten, you know, the Gulf War story has kind of disappeared a bit, although there are still veterans afflicted by that who, you know, are getting that war pensions, quite rightly so.
I know that your research with the military took you into the fields in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, what was that like and how did you cope?
Well, if you're a psychiatrist, you are a bit of a voyeur. And I love watching people at work being policemen or barristers and certainly soldiers. So and this was an opportunity to see people on their territory. When you're on their territory, they make it clear that you are useless. They call you sir because they have to, but they elongate it. So it's dripping with contempt, sir. Just to remind you that they are in charge. And that's very good for the soul.
It's time for some more music. No.6, what have you chosen and why?
Once a year I used to do something called the Pedal to Paris, which is a cycle ride from London to Paris to raise money for the Royal British Legion. When we get to Paris, it's the most exhilarating finish you cycle through. The water below in the roads is blocked for you. It's 250 miles. You sweep up to the Arc de Triomphe and as you get there, the band plays a French military band, plays the Marseillaise. And is there a better tune in the world than the Marseillaise?
The Marseillaise by Ensemble du Monde. Professor Simon Wessely in 2017, Theresa May asked you to lead a review of the Mental Health Act. Why do you think she approached you to take on the task?
Well, that's an excellent question. And the answer is because I didn't know much about it. It's a strange feature of our political culture that if you want to find someone to lead a review or in the old days, a royal commission, you must have someone who knows a lot about it because they've already got views.
And once he began to understand it and decide, you know, what should be changed and what your recommendations would be, what was the most important change that you wanted to get through?
We did conclude that even though mental health facts are necessary and the only way to prove that is if you go to a country that doesn't have a mental health, that you wouldn't want to be severely mentally ill, that they're there to balance, you know, everyone's right to autonomy, to make their own decisions. But also, a civilised state also wants to protect its most vulnerable and the elderly, the very young and the people with the most severe mental disorders.
So it's that balance. And to do it in the safest and shortest way possible. But I think the biggest one was to make sure the voices of the patients were going to be heard and respected and also given teeth by an increased system of protection. So that's probably the biggest thing we did.
Looking back over your career, as we have been today, Simon, how much drive is it taken to get where you are today, would you say?
I don't know, really.
I hate being bored and I've not been bored in my career. You would have to be some odd not to find or I think I was unbiased, but to find some of the things in psychiatry, some of the things in medicine, some of the things in history that I've been involved with are not intriguing. And you would want to know more. And I've always wanted to know more. And that's still with me. That hasn't gone away.
It's time for your next desk. So tell us what we're going to hear and why. When my children both were born in the hospital, they were Caesarean. And obviously there's a lot of fuss and things like that. But when thatd when that said things had returned to kind of peace and normality and when I was allowed to hold them, I went to the slews, the quiet place. And for both of them, I just put this music on.
So it makes me think of them. It doesn't make them think of them, by the way. They don't get it. But I do. And it just makes me think of both our boys and just how lucky we have been in terms of family.
Mozart's Serenade for Wins in B Flat, The Grand Partita performed by the German Soloists Ensemble. So Simon Wessely, you're married to Dame Clare Gerada. She's a former chair of the Royal College of GPS, making you the first couple to have both led royal institutions. Are you able to leave work at the door or do you tend to talk shop at the dinner table?
I think the answer is we do talk shop. We do the kids will tell you that we're actually they say we're competitive, but I totally deny that. And what do they know? What word would you use?
Mutually supportive, occasionally argumentative, but also very respectful of what each other does. But I should add that we are the reason our children don't do medicine and I don't blame them.
Oh, really? What were they saying that put them off anything? Well, I think it was the example we set have been just, you know, really bad parents for much of the time. Always working. Yes. And I do remember once coming home, no going off to work in the morning. And I love cafes and often called in for coffee. And I've been away for a few weeks. So I came in, ordered a cappuccino and then got a bill for 80 pounds.
So that's a lot for a cappuccino. So yes, it is a lot, however, and it gave me a list of all the bacon sandwiches and everything that my children had been unknown to us and been going in to get extra food or essentially foraging. Yes, exactly. Yeah.
I'm about to cast you away, of course, Simon. I know that even in the real world, you're terrified of being bored. How will you manage on the island? You weren't looking forward to it.
I would be awful. I'm completely cack handed. I despite the fact I love cycling, I can't even change a wheel. And also, I'm a very social creature and I can't see that I'd survive for very long without my friends, family and colleagues, not necessarily in that order. All right, Simon.
Well, the moment is almost upon us. But before we send you off to the island, one more disc from you, please. Number eight, what have you chosen and why?
This is just music that I like and cheers me up. Actually, the name Wessely is pronounced Vassili in check and anyone listening to check will know that it means cheerful. And this is really cheerful music and it's the big band sound and they don't come any bigger or better than Jools Holland. Tuxedo Junction, Jools Holland and his rhythm and blues orchestra. So Simon Wesley, I'm going to send you away to the island now. I'm giving you the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to take with you.
You can also have another book.
What will that be in the world of Zoom? See everyone's bookshelves. And if you have a ziemann, you'll see that I have an unhealthy obsession with Russian history and Boris Stalin. And I think I would like to take a teach yourself Russian book, not because I'm going to be able to read those books in Russian, but because one thing I'd love to do is to give toasts the way that Russians do. Everyone either cheers or they start crying or whatever.
And I think I could probably master that.
You could also have a luxury item. What would you like?
Most days I spend time in a cafe and the best cafes in the world are in Vienna, and I adore them. So I want a Viennese cafe, please, with the surly waiter. I'll have the surly waiter.
Oh, well, now this is going to prove difficult, breaking all kinds of rules for all sorts of reasons. Simon, I'm afraid. No, definitely not a surly waiter because I can't give you a living being.
I suppose if you could give me a beautiful you can Stelara Art Deco chair and the table. Round table. Round table. OK.
If you gave me that, I probably would just about accept that.
Well that I can do.
OK, and finally, which one track of the eight and you've shared with us today, would you save from the waves if you had to?
It's got to be the moment I met Claire. So how long has this been going on? So it's the answer obviously is 33 years and still going strong. So let's please have around midnight.
Professor Simon Wessely, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs. Thank you.
I really enjoyed it.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Simon, we will leave him enjoying his island cafe and possibly making toasts in Russian. Over the years we've cast many psychiatrists and psychologists away, including Anthony Stone, Baroness Sheila Hollins, Professor Tanya Byron, Dorothy Rowan, Susan Blackmore. You can hear those programs on the Desert Island Discs website and on BBC Sang's. Hello, I'm Vanessa Cassilly, and there is nothing I love more than a great documentary, I'm woken by the sound of gunfire.
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