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1 Professor Sheila, Baroness Hollins of Wimbledon and Grenoside

1 Professor Sheila, Baroness Hollins of Wimbledon and Grenoside

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S. Hollins

Baroness Hollins is emeritus professor of psychiatry of disability at St. George’s

University of London in England, UK. In 2010, she was appointed to the House of

Lords as a cross-bench peer for her innovative research and policy advocacy on the

mental and physical health of individuals with learning disabilities. She is also founder

and chair of Beyond Words, a charity that designs picture books to aid communication

in people with intellectual disabilities. Dr. Hollins chaired the Board of Science at the

British Medical Association until 2016 and is currently president of the College of

Occupational Therapists. She holds an honorary chair in the Department of Theology

and Religion at the University of Durham and has also served as president of both the

British Medical Association and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.


What Was Your Earliest Ambition?

An early ambition was to be a nurse—I remember the home birth of my younger

brother and the role of the midwife who came to support my mother. I was very

impressed. My parents let me join the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade cadets when I

was still at primary school and I took the exams seriously. When I was 15 my

biology teacher encouraged me to consider medicine instead. I also wanted to be a

musician and to play in the Halle Orchestra. My favourite activity as a young

teenager was to sit behind the orchestra in the choir, watching the conductor closely

and listening to a concert in the Sheffield City Hall! I learned jazz clarinet as well so

would have been thrilled to be in a jazz quartet.


What Attracted You to Psychiatry?

I was curious about other human beings, their decisions and relationships and clearly

remember wanting to know why people are the way they are. In fact I studied very

little psychiatry at my Medical School, St. Thomas’, as I chose to get married during

the psychiatry firm and it was not examined in clinical finals. But as a general

practitioner in South London, I felt ill equipped to respond to my patient’s emotional

and social problems so I took a psychiatry training post for 6 months thinking I

would return to general practice later. Instead I fell in love with the subject,

encouraged by one of my teachers who said my common sense would be useful.


What Do You Enjoy Most in Your Job Now?

In 2010 I was appointed ‘Baroness Hollins’—an independent ‘cross-bench’ peer in

the House of Lords—where I speak mainly on mental health and disability. It

involves me in trying to explain mental health and developmental disability to the


Sheila Hollins


public, to politicians and policy makers and to those responsible for commissioning

and delivering services that will make a positive difference to people’s lives. I work

strategically with organisations as diverse as the Vatican, Health Education England, and Beyond Words. My work brings together many years of clinical and

academic experience as a psychiatrist, with my personal and family experience.

The work I enjoy most and feel proudest of achieving is co-researching and

co-creating picture books with people who find pictures easier to understand than

words. We all know the expression ‘a picture tells a thousand words’. What the

pictures in my books achieve is to unlock a mode of communication that enables us

to recognise the universality of feelings and relationships, independently of the

ability to express them in words.

Books Beyond Words is a tool for professionals to use with people in many

different teaching and counselling situations, to increase empathy and to provide a

glimpse into people’s inner worlds. Our books use pictures to tell stories that

engage and empower people, on themes such as love and relationships, health,

death and dying, and crime. www.booksbeyondwords.co.uk.


Who Do You Consider Your Mentor(s)

During Your Career?

Most of my mentors would have considered themselves outsiders in some way,

rather as I felt myself to be something of an outsider as a woman at that time,

especially as a married woman working part-time.

Thinking now about their qualities, they were generous people who would do

anything to encourage and support others. Maybe they were perceived as being

different, were thought not ‘clubbable’, or perhaps they experienced having to work

very hard to belong because of their nationality, gender, race or sexual orientation.

All issues that I hope are becoming a distant memory.

They included my psychoanalyst who helped me with work/life balance issues

but most importantly to gain insight into the contribution my own personality

makes to any relationship whether professional or personal.


What Was Your Best Career Move?

My best career decision was probably to enter analysis when I was a trainee—at my

own expense and in my own time! In the more traditional understanding of a career

move, it is hard to choose. My three years as a GP were an essential foundation for

the way I have practiced psychiatry. Higher training in child and family psychiatry

profoundly influenced my later career working with adults with developmental

intellectual disabilities. Leaving child psychiatry in 1981 to be a senior lecturer with

Joan Bicknell, the newly appointed first ever professor in psychiatry of intellectual


S. Hollins

disability (mental handicap as it was called then) felt incredibly brave. One of my

former consultant trainers commiserated with me: ‘My dear, I am so sorry—I hear

you are going into subnormality’! I began to understand just how brave or foolish I

was about to be! When I was offered the position, Joan introduced me to some of

her (all male) colleagues at the University and said how glad she was to be

appointing a psychotherapist. This encouraged me to think that my skills would

actually be as relevant as I had hoped they would. The job description looked

impossible and was seemingly unachievable. But I was inspired by an extraordinary

woman and instinctively drawn to the work because of my experience with my

young disabled son.

I have always been highly motivated by my passion for my work, but I wasn’t

career-focussed. I didn’t set out to become a consultant or professor—I think I

wanted to understand my ‘patients’ as human beings and to be good at what I did.

I was motivated by a desire to learn and to make a difference.

Personal ‘success’ was a by-product, never a primary motivation.


What Were The Key Obstacles You Had to Overcome?

Finding a training post as a part-time clinician was a challenge. A senior professor

said I wasn’t suitable for a training post at his prestigious institution unless I was

prepared to work full time. Years later, during my presidency of the Royal College

of Psychiatrists, he reflected that his hospital’s pressurised training programme

could have destroyed my creativity. I know what he meant—too much guidance,

too many rules about what you ‘must’ do to ‘get on’ are unnecessarily restrictive,

perhaps even more so if you start off being different in some way.

Secondly my academic career began rather unorthodoxly. I had published very

little—but it included a paper about introducing one of the earliest home computers

to my son to try and stimulate his language development.

I understand that the rules have changed and the dreaded publish or perish has

been replaced with one’s value and success being judged by the level of grant

income obtained. My citations, impact score and grant income could never achieve

the dizzy heights achieved by researchers with laboratories. My area of research is

the least ‘sexy’ and the least medical and the last to need a laboratory. There is so

little interest in my field that there are few grant opportunities. Have a look at the

latest call for applications from any mental health or public health grant giving body

and see how many such calls even mention my ‘patient’ group. My focus was on

impact and making a difference. This too is now recognised, but making an impact

can take a long time.

Research I completed in the early nineties took several years to publish because

it wasn’t considered of interest to physicians and GPs (it was about life span and

cause of death in people with intellectual disabilities), but is at last having the kind

of impact I hoped for. My finding that adults with developmental intellectual disabilities were 58 times more likely to die before the age of 50 was replicated in a


Sheila Hollins


Confidential Inquiry published two years ago, leading to the establishment of the

first National Mortality Review for this client group worldwide—just 25 years after

I completed my data collection! As for picture books with no words as a tool for

communicating best practice, emerging from co-produced research with my client

group—that was definitely not considered ‘academic’!


What Kept You Going During Difficult Times?

My husband! I am married to an unusual and wonderful man who shares my values

and interests, although not at all in medicine, and who was more than content to

share childcare, food shopping and so on. For many years he was a schoolteacher

and was at home during school holidays. He has always been a great listener and

comfort after a difficult day. My children are good company and I share different

interests with each of them and their children. Grandchildren are a joy, and I have

more time to observe them and ponder their futures. My spirituality is grounded in

the Catholic Church and in a dispersed lay Benedictine community, not in a ‘blind’

adherence to a religious faith, but through finding a space for reflection in a global

community with a shared culture and shared values.

Of course we all have difficult times. One such time for me was when my

youngest daughter was stabbed and became tetraplegic. Family, friends, colleagues

and our faith community all gave us the strength to confront the resulting challenges, including having to deal with unwanted press intrusion and harassment.


What Role (Positive and/or Negative)

Did Being a Woman Played in Your Career?

In some ways being a woman made my career easier because few of my teachers

seemed to have any significant expectations of me! Nobody was pushing me to

achieve, so I could just get on with doing what I enjoyed and found satisfying,

without having to explain myself all the time.

On the other hand, nobody thought my priorities and choices were particularly

wise ones. Occasional advice to work full time if I wanted to be taken seriously was

easy to ignore. With 4 children, one of whom had a developmental disability, full

time was just not an option. So firstly as a trainee, then as a salaried GP, and later as

a trainee psychiatrist, I was able to work part-time. I benefitted from the supernumerary part-time training programme established for women like me by the

visionary Dr. Rosemary Rue. I chose a hospital that had a workplace nursery and

fortunately it also offered excellent psychiatric training! The nursery was the priority for me, and running a campaign to save the hospital crèche from closure

introduced me to the importance of understanding NHS management and the power

of using broadcast and print media to gain support.


S. Hollins

I found that my voice was not ‘heard’ in meetings where I was the only woman.

What I said was ignored, although the same idea voiced 5 minutes later by a male

colleague might be received with acclaim, without any acknowledgement of my

contribution! Many women report similar experiences.

I learned a few tricks in my early days as an academic. For example, if I needed

to leave a meeting before the end, I realised that everyone was sympathetic if I said

I was going to collect my car from the garage, but they were not at all impressed if I

said I was leaving to collect a child from school. As my confidence grew I simply

told the truth.


How Did You Deal With the Issue

of Work–Family Balance?

My family has always and will always be my absolute priority, but I would never

have been completely fulfilled by being a stay at home mother. I have always

needed the intellectual stimulation and the personal rewards that came from clinical

work, teaching and research. My personal analysis helped me to understand my

own needs and to be confident in my own potential. I know that my family might

consider my work to occupy too much of my time, especially since I retired from

paid employment. But retirement simply means that with the luxury of a pension, I

am free to choose which challenges I engage with and which I feel free to say no to.

Another way I have tried to deal with work/life balance is to involve my family,

especially my husband in opportunities that arise from my work. So we often travel

to conferences together and then have a holiday afterwards. My aim has been to

view my life as an integrated whole rather than to try to separate different roles and

activities. The Benedictine charism is one of balance and stability and I have

learned much from the monastic tradition, which encourages a rhythm of work, rest

and contemplation within a community. My primary community is my family.


What Would You Do Differently if You Were

to Start Your Career Now?

I wouldn’t want to do things very differently today from a career point of view,

although I might have to. For example, to gain a clinical academic position, I would

probably have to do a doctorate, rather than gratefully and graciously accept

honorary doctorates in all manner of disciplines, which seems to be my good

fortune now! Perhaps I would have studied something else before going to medical

school. More importantly, I would be able to take advantage of maternity and

paternity leave arrangements. When my first two children were born, there was no

such provision. I was unemployed for 4 months after my daughter was born, having

worked more than 100 hours a week up until two days before her birth so that I

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