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2009, December 5th, London South Bank University, Keyworth Centre

SKELLERN LECTURE, Dr Neil Brimblecombe - Mental health care and mental health nursing - professional triumph or social failure?. 

Introduced by Len Bowers

Lecture Synopsis: Coherent arguments can be made that mental health nursing is either: i) The most vital mental health profession, which remains the closest to service users. It continues to develop new skills and new roles. The profession in the UK is the envy of many other countries; with numerous professors, large numbers of practitioners, a specialist pre registration training, valuable post registration trainings and a growing research base. 

ii) A profession that is philosophically adrift, with an evidence base that largely mimics medical minimalism. Nurses remain at the beck and call of a largely bio medical psychiatry. The flexibility that nurses show is simply weakness, taking on roles that others do not want. Nurses fail to meet the real needs of service users for social inclusion and recovery.   Whilst there is no simple synthesis that can be applied to these apparently diametrically opposed views, studying the historical development of mental health nursing and mental health services provides a means to gain perspective on the modern activities of MH Nursing, and the perspectives applied to it.  This lecture looks at the development of MH nursing and its relationship with other professions, how governments, psychiatrists, nurses and service users have portrayed MH nursing. Measures that might best answer the question of 'professional success or social failure?' will be considered, including 'the service user view' and comparisons with nursing elsewhere in the world.  Finally the moot question is raised 'just how useful is mental health nursing to us?

Biography: Director of Quality and Professional Practice, South Staffs and Shropshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.  Nurse Director, Tavistock and Portman, NHS Foundation Trust.  Special Professor in Mental Health Nursing, University of Nottingham



Introduced by Bryn Davis

Helen Bamber returned to England in 1947 and was appointed to the Committee for the Care of Children from Concentration Camps, where she was responsible for the welfare of 722 young orphan children from the former concentration camp of Auschwitz, brought to England in 1945 under a special scheme. Over a period of eight years, Helen was trained in the skills of working with deeply-traumatised children and young adults by the director of the Committee, a practicing psycho-analyst and the former head of an institution for severely disturbed children. She worked in close liaison with the Anna Freud Clinic and the London Hospital Child Guidance Clinic, as well as undertaking a part-time study in Social Science at the London School of Economics.


In 1954, she was appointed  Senior Case Worker to the Invalid Children's Aid Association, working with families where one or more members had contracted tuberculosis. In 1958, she was appointed Almoner at St. George in the East Hospital and worked there and later at the Middlesex Hospital, until the birth of her son in 1958.  Following the birth of her second child, she became one of the founder members of the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital, drawing on her experience of observing children separated from their parents both in the hospital in Belsen, and the hospitals in which she worked in England. Through its research and lobbying, the organization known as NAWCH established the now-proven practice that a mother should be allowed to remain with a young child, particularly under the age of five, during periods of hospitalization.  During the period that Helen was bringing up her two small children, she collaborated with Dr. Maurice Pappworth in researching the material for and the production of his two books, A Textbook of Medicine and Human Guinea Pigs. She also collaborated with a psycho-analyst, Dr. Hardenberg, in the research for his paper to the Institute of Psycho-Analysis on the subject of Torture. Material from the Nuremberg trials and the study of the conversion of the Nazi doctors into practitioners who could kill and perform experiments on children, provided insight into the origins and context of atrocity, and was explored in the paper on Torture.


Helen joined Amnesty International shortly after its inception in 1961 and became chairman of the first group in the British Section. In 1974, she helped to establish and was appointed Secretary of the first medical group in the British Section of Amnesty, a group that researched and exposed the practice of torture worldwide. It campaigned both in the UK and abroad on its findings of the participation of doctors in human rights abuses and called on doctors to oppose torture and to protect those members of the profession who were themselves in danger.  In recognition of the documentation and submissions of the Medical Group, the British Medical Association established a Working Party on Torture. The BMA's publication on the findings of the Working Party resulted in its first Torture Report and publication Medicine Betrayed. Over a period of 20 years, the work of the Medical Group developed widely and its doctors were sent on missions abroad to investigate allegations of torture and human rights abuses. Documentation was submitted to the United Nations and other international human rights bodies.  The examination and treatment by the Medical Group's doctors of an increasing number of people residing in the UK who had been tortured and required specialist skills for physical and psychological injuries, led to the realisation that a more comprehensive service of long-term care was needed.  It was for this reason that, at the end of 1985, Helen established the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, as an independent charity. Since its inception, the Medical Foundation has earned a worldwide reputation for its response to the practice of torture and the treatment of its victims. She was director from 1985 until 2002 when she stepped down to continue to treat her large caseload of seriously traumatized people.


In recognition of her work, Helen was named European Woman of Achievement in 1993. In 1997, she was awarded an OBE and in 1998 received an Award for a Lifetime's Achievement in Human Rights. Helen holds Honorary Degrees from the following universities: Oxford, Dundee, Glasgow, Essex, Ulster, Kingston, The Open University, the American University, London and Brookes University, Oxford.  Helen is a consultant to the Belfast Trauma Centre and a community based psychological centre in Londonderry. She is on the advisory boards of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project, Gaza, and the Family Rehabilitation Centre in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is Patron of Women Against Violence, Belfast, the New Counselling Service, Belfast, the Caspari Foundation for educational therapy and therapeutic teaching, London and a counselling service in East London, known as WCHM. She is President of the United Nations Association, London and South East branch.  Helen was appointed to the Women Leader's Council (WLC) of the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN.GIFT) in February 2008. The WLC's overall objective is to positively influence action in the fight against human trafficking by providing a high-level of professional outreach, with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the areas of women's issues and human rights.  The first meeting was held in Vienna, Austria to coincide with the launch of the UN.GIFT initiative set forth by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.  The WLC will meet annually and advise the UN on its progress in combating human trafficking in all its forms.

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Photos by Russell Ashmore

Pictured from top left: Professor Sally Hardy who introduced the evening.  Dr Ben Thomas presented Neil Brimblecoombe with his commemorative plaque. Brian Woottatt (close friend and colleagues of Eileen Skellern) with Paul Forte (Eileen’s nephew).  Professor Dawn Freshwater (JPMHN - Editor) presenting Helen Bamber with commemorative Plaque.  Helen Bamber talking with Geoff Brennan.  Len Bowers picture with Dr Joe Berke.

Short lists 2009  

Skellern Lecture: Professor Hilary McCallion, Professor Mary Chambers, Dr Neil Brimblecombe

Lifetime Award: Paul Sayer, Malcolm Rae, Helen Bamber. 

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