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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

A year of living dangerously

Well here I am at the end of my first year as President. I have somehow navigated through the hardest 12 months of my career and survived. At times its been enjoyable, at times terrifying but never ever boring.

One of my biggest worries when I started was speeches. I have never been a person who can just stand up and talk without preparation or notes.

I was reassured by my son who said "Mum, they probably voted for you because you don’t make long speeches." In fact, the speeches have been the least of my worries and for my first Presidential Address at congress I felt confident enough to insert a short recording of some rap music...

Best Congress ever

Congress this year was for me the best ever.

It’s hard to pick out the highlights as everything was so good but introducing Baroness Hale, the first woman President of the Supreme Court, was a huge privilege. Her speech was entitled "Is it time for yet another Mental Health Act?". It was thought provoking and uncompromisingly direct and honest.

Read Baroness Hale’s speech (PDF).

Another highlight was hearing Joanna Cannon, psychiatrist and best-selling author, talk about how she became a writer and the connection between storytelling and Psychiatry.

As she said "the thing I have learnt since being published is that we all have a story to tell. Stories connect us".

And of course, Psychiatrists love stories and we are lucky to hear so many of them.

Althea Stewart, President of the American Psychiatric Association, produced my favourite quote of the conference: "It’s easier to build strong children than repair broken men". 

This was originally said by Frederick Douglass, an African-American statesman who, having escaped from slavery, became a leader of the abolitionist movement. It is as relevant today as when he first said it.

I could go on about Congress for ever. I hope you were lucky enough to have experienced it for yourself.

I am really sorry that we sold out and that some of you were disappointed. The increased numbers took us by surprise and we will try out best to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Next year we will be in a larger venue in London from 1st to 4th of July.

Recommended reading

Another excitement for me was the publication of a book that I have a chapter in, Women’s Voices in Psychiatry: A Collection of Essays, edited by Gianetta Rands.

If you want to find out how I ended up as President, and the trouble I had with carrots at school, you’ll need to buy it to find out.

Any profit will go to the College to be used towards bursaries for trainee women psychiatrists.

After Congress the next big event was the 70th birthday of the NHS. 

My mother was a practising doctor in 1948 when the NHS was formed and she gave me a vivid description of how wonderful it was for ordinary people to know that they could get whatever treatment they needed, free at the point of delivery. 

One of the first patients she treated was so overwhelmed that he gave her a present of 12 dozen (i.e. 144) turkeys’ eggs. At this time food was still rationed so this was very exciting.

She managed to take them home on the train to her mother who preserved them in Isinglass.

NHS has changed – but more change needed

The NHS now is unrecognisable from how it was when it began but the principles are the same, including "comprehensiveness within available resources".

But the needs of people with mental illness have not been truly considered part of that "comprehensive" healthcare.

It’s time now that Mental Health Services are resourced to the same level as physical health services and we truly do implement parity of esteem.

We need to invest in staff and infrastructure and to encourage a greater number of medical students to choose psychiatry.

That way we will finally be able to provide comprehensive care that our patients deserve.

Professor Wendy Burn

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Professor Wendy Burn

Professor Wendy Burn FRCPsych


Professor Wendy Burn became a consultant old age psychiatrist in Leeds in 1990 and now works fulltime in a community post. Her main clinical interest is dementia.

She has held a regional leadership role in this area from 2011 and was co-clinical Lead for dementia for Yorkshire and the Humber Strategic Clinical Network between 2013 and 2016.