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Things I Now Know: Ann John

Ann John is a Professor in Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University. Her research focusses on suicide and self-harm prevention, and children and young people’s mental health. She is also the lead on one of MQ’s largest projects, the Adolescent Data Platform.

As part of this new series, we spoke to Ann about things in life she's learned, her influences and her inspirations...

As a child, I always wanted to be a writer. I read constantly and wrote exquisitely awful diary entries. I think it was a way to make sense of the world and my identity as a child with parents from another continent and culture. There was a tension between my life outside the home - of school, the local park, fish fingers and Pontins holidays - and that inside, of dahl, congee and 5 yearly trips to India. Films like Bend it like Beckham exposed all that, but when I was young there were few such references. 

Growing up, my mother and grandmother were my heroes. My grandmother was a headmistress at a girls school in India and my mother worked full-time from the moment she arrived in London in the 60’s. This was all at a time when working mothers were far from the norm. Both women shaped the choices I made to work hard yet flexibly, pursue a career I love in a chequered trajectory and sit with the tensions of career and motherhood.

I’ve seen first-hand how hard work can reap rewards. Going to medical school at 18, becoming a GP and then moving into Public Health are all roles that have shaped me. Handing in my thesis after my maternity leave as a single mother with a baby and two young boys was one of my proudest moments. It meant I was qualified to apply for the job I love as a clinical academic researching suicide and self-harm prevention, and children and young people’s mental health. There’s no doubt it was hard work, but it was worth every late night.

Becoming a single mother whilst pregnant with my third child opened my eyes to the experience of stigma. That label can define you in some people’s eyes. I grappled with my own loss, sense of failure, shame and judgement from others – which all became obstacles to manoeuvre as I tried to find a new space in the world. Though these feelings passed, they gave me some small but important insight into the effects of living with other stigmatised labels, like having a mental illness.

For many years I believed I’d spent a wonderful hour having coffee with Stanley Kubrick. One day, whilst working at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, I escaped for a coffee in the café next door. I started chatting to a man who I was convinced was him. It turns out now that it was more likely to have been the Stanley Kubrick impersonator - it wasn’t until the John Malkovich film Colour Me Kubrick came out many years later that I realised. It was very disappointing!

Some of the conversations I had with people as a GP are still with me. The two things that hit me hardest were the huge impact of mental health issues and socio-economic inequalities on people’s lives. I want to understand the causes of the causes, change things through policy and treatment, and use my voice to advocate for people who may not be able to it for themselves. Research does all that – it feeds geeky, serious me but also opens doors to meaningful conversations with people, practitioners, policy makers and the media. 

It's so important that everyone has access to mental health care. There’s definitely been a change in society’s awareness of mental illness, and that’s great - so long as we can provide the appropriate services in the right way, at the right time. We can’t forget those with complex needs. And we need to remember that not everyone can get time off work to attend appointments, travel easily or manage to ring a service at 8.30am to make an appointment. 

We need to improve our ability to intervene early when it comes to mental health. 75% of mental illness sets in before a young person turns 24 - and children living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in the UK are 2 -3 times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest 20%. These facts aren’t short and snappy, but they are the basis of what we need to change.

MQ is part of the mental health solution. It’s enabling amazing research which, as with services, has been historically underfunded. It’s also been pivotal in bringing mental health researchers together - before everyone worked in silos and I would rarely have been in the same room as a genetics researcher or a social scientist. Linking these specialties, and the different types of data they gather, gives a much more real reflection of the true triggers and complexity of mental illness.

Last updated: 20 June 2019

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