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Baroness Sheila Hollins: oration

Read Professor Paul Salkovkis' oration on Baroness Sheila Hollins for the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in June 2014.


Baroness Sheila Hollins of Wimbledon and Grenoside shines as a leading doctor and psychiatrist, a description justified by even the most abbreviated summary of her career. In 1990 she became chair of Psychiatry of Disability at St George’s, University of London; she was twice seconded to the Department of Health as senior policy advisor in learning disability and autism. Between 2005-2008 as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists she was instrumental in developments such as helping the profession to devise and adopt new ways of working. Since 2011 she has held the same chair as Professor Emeritus after what clearly cannot be described as “retirement”. She led the British Medical Association as President from 2012 to 2013 and currently chairs the BMA Board of Science. As a member of the Commission on the Protection of Minors she advises Pope Francis.

She is declaredly a woman committed to science, faith and family, embodying and promoting values throughout her career: humility, empathy and the application of science to better understanding of and develop more effective interventions in mental health.

There is little doubt that her understanding was deepened by her personal experience, and in facing a range of personal and professional challenges consistently and positively. Having graduated in medicine from St Thomas’ Hospital, she first met someone with mental health problems when working as a GP in South London. Of this psychotic patient she said “I had a five-minute slot… probably double-booked. How on earth was I to know where to begin? How to respond appropriately to that patient? How to begin to understand the complexity of his needs?” Characteristically she responded by looking for answers, going on to train as a psychiatrist. As one of the first in her scheme to train part time, she campaigned to save the hospital crèche. Values-driven campaigning is a lifelong feature.

Her experience as the parent of a son with a severe learning disability has clearly been an inspiration during her career, motivating tireless campaigns to improve health services for people with learning disability. In the 1980s, she sought picture books to help people with learning disabilities cope with feelings, finding nothing. When her son was in his teens, she found that drawing pictures helped him understand his experiences. She went on to work with people with learning disabilities, an illustrator and other professionals to produce books without words: “When Dad Died” and “When Mum Died”, published in 1989. Under her editorship the Books Beyond Words series developed a further 38 titles tackling issues such as growing up, abuse, institutional care, health needs and community living.

As the mother of Abigail Witchalls, attacked and paralysed apparently at random by someone with substance misuse and mental health problems, she expressed compassion for the assailant and his family. In this context she articulated concern about the development of the Mental Health Bill, saying “we can lock up 100,000 people and still have catastrophes like the attack on my daughter”. She reacted to these tragic events not only by supporting her daughter and family but also in terms of the attacker and the broader implications for improving access to mental health services.

As a member of several bodies nationally and internationally she has highlighted health inequalities, campaigning for their resolution. She identified the importance of her not being defined by just one aspect of her being, declaring that it is possible for a woman to be many things, with different parts shining at different moments. The University of Bath not only salutes her values but also aspires to enable their development to shine in its members.

Chancellor, I present to you Professor Sheila Baroness Hollins of Wimbledon and Grenoside, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Professor Paul Salkovkis

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