Herbert Klein: Memorial lecture in honour of Dr Nick Kitson, who transformed Deaf mental health services

Posted on July 23, 2015

I am here to give a talk in memory of a great man – Nick Kitson.

In 1984, Dr Nick Kitson started working with Deaf people as a Consultant Psychiatrist at Springfield Hospital.

He had no prior knowledge of Deaf people and/or services and only encountered this upon commencement of his job.

He studied Deaf services, sign language, culture and so on for nine months and during this time visited Denmark, USA, a few Care Homes and Whittingham Hospital ( moved to John Denmark Unit in Bury) in the UK.

He went to Gallaudet University in Washington DC, USA and this had a huge impact on him as he was immersed into a completely Deaf world and community. All Deaf and hearing people there communicated through sign language.

This helped him understand that Deaf services should belong to and be owned by the Deaf community. He made changes to the system, to ensure that more Deaf people be employed within the Mental Health services.

He ought for the Deaf unit to became a ‘Supra Regional Deaf Unit,’ which happened in 1987. ‘Supra’ meant that the funding was ring-fenced by central government which in turn meant that all referrals were funded by Government even if the patients did not come from the local area, with no charges placed on the referrers.

Dr Nick Kitson

Dr Nick Kitson

After Nick started to pioneer the employment of Deaf staff, I became one of first Deaf people, alongside Lesley McGilp and Gary Cooper, who were employed into the service, working as Deaf Therapists.

He threw us in at the deep end and then sat back to watch to see if we would sink or swim, all the time being good-humoured about our endeavours.

Nick Kitson knew that Deaf staff are naturally more fluent signers, more flexible in adapting to patient communication needs and also know Deaf patients’ culture better than their hearing counterparts as they live it daily.

He encouraged the Trust to get more Deaf staff into clinical training and started a long campaign for access to training.

He also pioneered psychotherapy, family therapy and child services at Springfield Hospital. He pioneered the the training of deaf staff to become counsellors and led many other developments in psychiatric services for Deaf people.

He worked tirelessly to increase promotion to hearing and Deaf people about training, services, conferences. He liaised with the Government and the Health Authority to make sure that Deaf needs were provided for to ensure equality with hearing peers.

This quote from The British Deaf news in April 1992 offers a snippet of the tireless work he did:

“We offer a wide range of services for Deaf people with mental illness and behavioural or emotional problems but we are not yet fully part of the Deaf community. We won’t be part of the Deaf community until most of our staff, senior or junior are or have become part of the Deaf community. Our service must remain free. We want to spend extra resources on providing a better service by Deaf people for Deaf people, not sending bills.”

All that Nick tried to attain became a reality; his vision came true. We have funding from NHS England which means we are able to provide a free service for any referrals, new technology, more Deaf staff as well as more interaction with Deaf users and their families.

He was so passionate and committed to the Deaf community in all areas of his work in the mental health setting.

He set up and chaired the BSMHD (British Society of Mental Health and Deafness) in 1991 to encourage a network which has grown over the years.

He became President of the ESMHD (its European equivalent) to influence and challenge the system further afield in other countries.

He became involved in both groups to broach Deaf issues such as the use of signers, to get the message to employers as well as to discuss training routes for Deaf people to ensure there was equality with their Hearing peers in every aspect of work and society.

He objected to the new label ‘Surdophrenia’ which translated roughly as ‘Deaf Mind’ (though some called it ‘Deaf Mad’) which first evolved from Denmark by Dr. Jorgen Remvig who was a Consultant Psychiatrist.

Later, in 1997 at the ESMHD conference in Manchester, he adopted a new label of ‘Surdophobia’ which translated as ‘Phobia of Deaf.’

Although he has now left us, his spirit and influence still live on and the effects of his work are still very much felt throughout the UK, Europe and probably worldwide too.

His widow, Karen Kitson, said:

“Nick’s main principle was that Deaf people need the respect of society as a culture with its own language. Psychiatric services should be available in that language provided by qualified Deaf mental health professionals. He worked tirelessly to achieve this. Even when he passed the Deaf Services to a younger generation he was involved behind the scenes to ensure service provision moved into the 21st century.”

Don’t forget, for all our work towards equality of access for all clinical training in Deaf mental health services, without Dr Nick Kitson we wouldn’t be here today.

By Herbert Klein

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