Is a mental health toolkit the solution to burnout? Adam Kay thinks so

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Adam Kay shared his vulnerable side on the Stylist Live Sessions podcast (as well as a surprising anecdote about Matt Hancock). 

Adam Kay has become something of a household name. Formerly a junior doctor, now a bestselling author, he penned This Is Going To Hurt in secret after endless days, sleepless nights and missed weekends on a labour ward. The result? An instant bestseller.

Kay’s book proved itself to be a blisteringly funny, politically enraging and frequently heartbreaking wake-up call to anyone who values the NHS, and a frank and moving love letter to the 1.4 million people working on the front line every day.

Since then, This Is Going To Hurt has been adapted into a brilliant BBC series. And, on top of that, Kay has just written yet another bestselling book, Undoctored: The Story of a Medic Who Ran Out of Patients, which takes a deeper look into how his life has changed since leaving the NHS and reflects on some of the most traumatic parts of his life – all without ever losing any of that biting sense of humour.

Adam Kay proved a hit with the audience at Stylist Live 2022.

With all of that in mind, then, we can’t think of anyone better placed than Adam Kay to talk to us about how to move on when things don’t go quite the way you thought they might, and how you can glue things back together.

Speaking to Lisa Smosarski at Stylist Live 2022 about the last taboo in healthcare, in a conversation you can now listen to as an episode of the Stylist Live Sessions podcast, Kay explained: “Mental health among doctors is, for whatever reason, a taboo. Doctors make very bad patients. Having left medicine, I was a really, really, really bad patient. I had a spinal injury – literally, my right leg stopped working while I was on holiday at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, which doesn’t sound great now. That’s akin to the Hitler Hilton or something nowadays, but that was when he was a reality bastard.

“Anyway, I was so scared of seeing a doctor – I felt so embarrassed to see a doctor – that I didn’t see one for a fortnight, despite the fact that I was being pushed around in a wheelchair. So how likely is it that I would see a doctor for my mental health?”

Kay continued: “The fact is this, and you will think I’ve got this wrong, but every three weeks sees one doctor in the UK take their life by suicide. That is one doctor every three weeks, and the reason that doesn’t sound right to you is because you’ve never heard of it before. It’s never talked about. 

“I think it should be a headline and a scandal every time that happens.”

“I met Matt Hancock in his office/sex palace when he had just got the gig as health secretary, and he said to me, ‘If you could change one thing about the NHS, what would you do?’ I mean, the answer is loads of money or 100,000 more staff, but I knew he wouldn’t accept that.”

Kay went on to explain that he told Hancock how, when he was performing at a West End theatre, there was a poster in his dressing room pointing actors to a helpline if they had any concerns with their mental health. If anyone used it, they would be put through to a fully qualified counsellor, no matter what time or day of the week it was. And, Kay told the health minister, he was stunned that there wasn’t such a service provided for NHS staff.

Dubbing it one of the “single proudest moments of my career”, Kay revealed that Hancock went away and “expanded a service that used to be just for London GPs so that it could be used by all doctors all across the country”.

“That was my only positive experience with a politician,” he added, before stressing that he is no fan of Hancock – particularly now he has abandoned his constituents to go on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity. “I think I’d be too embarrassed to ever show my face ever again,” he said.

Adam Kay showed his vulnerable side during Stylist Live 2022.

During his Stylist Live chat, Kay also addressed the pitfalls of defining oneself by one’s career and candidly shared how his experience as a doctor – and the trauma he still feels as a result – will stay with him for life.

“I have PTSD of some descriptor,” he said. “I don’t know if it was PTSD for sure because I didn’t see a doctor, but I would wake up at 3am a couple of times a week, and I’d be back in that operating theatre where it all went wrong at work. My pulse would be going at 200 beats a minute. I’d be too scared to go back to sleep in case I returned to that nightmare, and it didn’t go away until I started writing and talking about it.”

“You can’t deal with it on your own,” Kay added. “You’re not meant to; you’re meant to talk about stuff. And it’s so damaging when you’re taught to keep it in.”

Kay also opened up about how he uses a ‘mental health toolkit’ when he finds himself plagued by feelings of burnout. “I think we all need to have a couple of things that we know we can do when you’ve had a crap day,” he told Smosarski. 

“When I’m starting to fizzle out, I walk the dog, and it just forces me to get out the house and get some fresh air – and whatever the magic is of the fresh air – and then the dog is happy and that makes me happy because I like the dog.

“The main thing I do, though, is I play the piano – and I am relatively bad at it. So, when I’m reading music in front of me, it uses up literally 100% of my brain. I can’t think of anything else… it acts like I’ve had a sort of douche in my head, and then when it’s clean I can start again.”

Essentially, then, we need to find an activity that forces us to be present in the moment – be that going to the cinema alone or playing a piece of music or doing some yoga or – if you want to get traditional with it – meditating.

For his final imparting words of wisdom, Kay told everyone gathered at Stylist Live 2022 to avoid falling into a career path because it’s expected of them. And, more importantly, not to see their careers as finite.

“We are a long time removed from the day you left school, left university and worked for 40 years in an office until you had the retirement party and got a gold carriage clock,” he said.

“Be aware that your career will have a zigzag path; it won’t be a straight line. Accept that. And if you’re getting bored, if you’re dreaming about something… I’ve yet to hear of the person who regrets it. The worst I’ve had is someone saying it didn’t work, and they just went back to work and it’s fine. Everyone says ‘I’m so glad I did that’ because it crosses it off that list of regrets.”

Images: Bronac McNeill

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