We should never, ever, put education behind us...

9th January 2004 at 00:00
...It should be something that everyone is doing, all the time. In the end, that's why I do what I do

Teaching people how to stay sane is one of Raj Persaud's obsessions.

Now Britain's best-known psychiatrist is setting his sights on the staffroom and giving teachers insights into how the mind works. Michael Duffy meets Friday magazine's new columnist

Everyone's heard of Dr Raj Persaud. He is, according to one national newspaper, "the undisputed king of the media shrink pack". He is a bestselling author and a prolific journalist; as well as writing regularly for the dailies he has columns in magazines as different as Men's Health and Cosmopolitan. His website carries articles on everything from drama therapy to beards; he's in demand as a broadcaster and presents Radio 4's "All in the Mind". He's everyone's agony uncle.

But Raj Persaud, 40, is much more than that. He is a good listener, for instance - hardly surprising when you consider he's a psychiatrist, but hardly typical for a media pundit. He has an engaging personality; open and direct, he is good company. He is passionate about his work.

He is also a fan of teachers and today begins a weekly column in Friday magazine. Surprised? "Teaching is the most important profession there is," he says. "Every single issue that matters comes back to teaching. The things that our society depends on - talent, energy and, yes, moral values - stem from teaching." He's also keen to learn from teachers about their experiences; how they cope. The new column is about a dialogue he wants to open up on the psychology of education and the mental health of teachers.

"I hope to learn a lot from them."

He says the one important reform we are waiting for is proper pay for our teachers. "They should be the best paid in the world. There should be a transfer market in outstanding teachers." But wouldn't that just widen the gap between the premier league schools and the non-league also-rans? "No, it's not like football. For parents, it's the local school that matters most. That makes the difference."

Raj Persaud's high-flying education started at local schools: until the age of 16 he went to Christ's College, Finchley - in those days a grammar, now a comprehensive - and then ("for no particular reason, it was the way it happened") moved to a private school, Haberdashers' Aske's, Elstree. He has warm memories of his teachers and particularly remembered his biology teacher at Christ's when he was interviewed for Friday's My Best Teacher slot. "Jenny Vanderstein was the first teacher I met who could handle any question," he said. "She didn't give a damn about the curriculum; she just pursued what was interesting and taught it to us. And she was the one who first said to me, 'Well, of course you'll be doing medicine'."

A first in psychology at University College London marked the beginning of his professional education. He'd been fascinated by the human mind, even as a secondary pupil. "I was one of those strange people who always knew what they wanted to be. I was always going to be a psychiatrist, ever since I read Eysenck's Know Your Own Personality and discovered from his do-it-yourself tests that I was a neurotic extrovert. 'Fantastic,' I thought. 'Why be anything else?'"

The medical degree came next, followed by a degree in the history of medicine and a master's in statistics. Then came the diplomas in philosophy and in health economics and management. And, of course, the membership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists on which he had set his heart while still at school. Then, at the age of 31 (the youngest person, some say, to be appointed to such a post), he became consultant in adult and community psychiatry at the Bethlem and Maudsley teaching hospitals in south London.

Nine years - and many research papers, prizes and distinctions - later, he still holds that post. It takes up "four full days" of his working week, and it's clear that both the job and the patients still matter hugely to him. Mental illness is appallingly common: one in 10 of us, he says, is suffering now; one in five of us will suffer from it at some stage; and children are as vulnerable as adults.

One of the causes is stress - another reason why he's interested in teachers. "Teaching is one of the most highly stressed professions, and it shows," he says. "Multiple accountabilities don't help. There are far more troubled children than there were, say, 50 years ago, and there is far less certainty about the sort of example we need to set them. The classroom has always been an enigmatic, problematic place; now it is a threatening place as well.

"But the really interesting thing about teachers is that they recognise that psychology and psychiatry are both crucially important in what they do. Psychology is the study of the normal mind; psychiatry the study of the abnormal. Teachers meet both, and need both." Do psychiatrists need both, then? "Traditionally, the answer's been no. In America, for instance, many medical students have made up their minds to do psychiatry. They have the glint of the couch already in their eye. But I think the distinction between the two disciplines is false. I think we've got to teach the normal mind how to cope with the stresses, the environmental factors that are so often factors in mental illness. Mental illness seems to be a function of the interaction between personality and environment. My writing and broadcasting is really about encouraging people to use their personal strengths, their personality if you like, to help them cope with those things in their environment that can't easily be changed."

His bestselling book, Staying Sane: How to Make Your Mind Work for You, first published in 1997, develops just this theme. Its subtitle illustrates its thesis. There are a significant number of people, Raj Persaud argues, who are not mentally ill, but who are likely to become so in the future.

There are simple strategies we can use to minimise the chances of that happening.

One is to learn to be content with who you really are, rather than forever striving for perfection. Care for yourself as well as others, and neutralise the worst-case scenarios (automatic negative thoughts, he calls them) that underlie so many of our worries. Develop coping skills, build up "resilience" (his favourite word). More rationality - learn how to harness your emotion for your longer-term benefit; more autonomy and less dependence; more acceptance of the status quo, and fewer clinics at the Maudsley.

It's there, of course, that he's on least firm ground. Given that we don't really know what causes mental illness, how valid are such cognitive therapy approaches? Don't they boil down, essentially, to common sense? And, in that case, isn't there some truth in the allegation that he's just another fashionable media don on television?

Whatever he is, he says, it isn't that. He's a National Health Service consultant with an ever-lengthening queue of patients - and his patients are ill, really ill. His colleagues trust and respect him. As a matter of fact, they've just voted him one of the top 10 psychiatrists in the country. And no, they're not all mad.

Though we may not know enough about the causes of mental illness, we know a great deal about the factors that seem to trigger it. We know that some people are more vulnerable to mental illness than others, and that some cognitive therapy strategies are effective in their treatment. "It really does make sense to teach these to the public."

Then he returns to the "media don" label. Perhaps it rankles, just a little. "Look," he says, "I work four days a week, in a desperately busy NHS psychiatric clinic. I treat only the sick. I never see the ones who are not sick yet, but who are vulnerable, at risk. How can I reach them, except through the media?

"I gave you two reasons for my interest in teachers: personal and professional. There is a third. I really do believe that the good life is the life of the mind. We should never, ever, put education behind us. It should be something that everyone is doing, all the time. In the end, I think that's why I do what I do. I'm thinking, and I'm learning.

"We sometimes ask ourselves, 'What did you earn today?' But it's the wrong question. 'What did you learn today?' is what I want my children to ask, and their teachers. And I ask it too."

Raj Persaud's new column is on page 20. His website is at www.btinternet.comrajendra

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