Recently we drew attention to a first-person account of a lifetime of contact with mental health services. Here we take the opportunity to highlight a similar account, this time of the struggle with clinical depression maintained by Annie Altschul (1919-2001), sometime Principal Nursing Tutor at Bethlem and the Maudsley Hospitals and the UK’s first Professor of Psychiatric Nursing. Towards the end of a fêted career (summarised some years ago in the British Journal of Psychiatry), Altschul sought help for a condition into which she confessed she had no insight, despite having ‘nursed patients suffering from all types of depressive illness’, ‘written about depression, and talked to student nurses about it’ over the years.
She writes eloquently about the retrospective insight this experience gave her:
‘It is the positive experience of not being depressed which makes me believe that I had been depressed for much longer than other people are willing to acknowledge…Coming out of depression is something one must experience to understand. It is difficult to describe to others, even to remind myself at this stage what it was like to enjoy music again for the first time, realizing in retrospect that for years I had gone through the motions of enjoying music without the sensuous pleasure of the real thing. The ecstasy of the beauty of spring in the Scottish landscape is another landmark in my recovery which its is difficult to convey to others.’1
In the absence of any guarantee against the return of her depression, Altschul nevertheless lived the remainder of her life well. Her characteristic determination, iconoclastic acumen and dry wit seems to have been joined by a fresh appreciation of life. She inspired a generation of mental health nurses, and if the obituary written by one is anything to go by, she was held in genuine regard by them in return.
1 Vicky Rippiere & Ruth Williams, Wounded Healers: Mental Health Workers’ Experiences of Depression. (Wiley: Chichester, 1985), p. 167.
Annie Altschul teaching Bethlem and Maudsley student nurses at Brakespeare House, Dulwich