Shannon Clack spoke to an NHS staff member who was placed back into isolation and tasked with duties that put a strain on his mental health.More
Things have been hard for everyone during the pandemic. Coronavirus has stripped away freedoms, livelihoods, and entire lives. There’s not one person that hasn’t been impacted by this virus since its inception at the end of 2019.
For some people things had hardship of a different kind attached to them. Especially those working in the NHS, on the front lines; an October report for NHS England found that nearly 1/3 of all sickness leave was due to psychiatric illnesses like anxiety and stress.
What is it like, then, for the staff that already experience anxiety and depression?
“I started my apprenticeship in 2018 with the East London NHS Foundation Trust, which is mainly a mental health trust,” says Alexander Smith, 23. He was part of organisational development, working on projects and hosting meetings. Then came COVID-19.
When people began dying, Alex was tasked with calling relatives and relaying the news.
“I didn’t even want to pick up the phone,” he says: “I had to call the family of staff who died and make sure they were okay…send them bereavement packages.”
Alex himself has anxiety, including social anxiety, and depression. Even without being the bearer of the worst news, picking up the phone could be tough.
“It was really difficult and sometimes I’d fall behind on how many calls I had to make that day.”
Alex, like many NHS workers, is physically vulnerable to coronavirus too. When shielding was introduced, he found himself locked in.
“All of a sudden I’m back in my room, and it’s fine, but I’m trapped here again. Everyday merges into one – it always feels like a Sunday.
“I feel like I’m in limbo, but I feel like that lots; I’m alive but I’m not.”
Before Alex took the NHS apprenticeship, he went through a bout of mental health induced isolation, which is where he finds himself again, but this time for the sake of his physical health.
He has IgA deficiency, meaning he lacks antibodies to fight infections. His lungs, gut and mouth are particularly at risk.
“I’m in the same vaccination group as the over 75s which is sad, but kind of funny.”
Alex has now had his first vaccine. For him, this means he is one step closer to being physically safe and mentally free.
With the proposed £15 million funding package rolling out wellbeing and psychological training, plus support services for critical care team trauma, perhaps the future for staff like him is looking a little less bleak.
However, if the mental wellbeing of NHS staff with pre-existing mental health conditions will be specifically supported remains to be seen.
Every year, January arrives with its cold winds and its post-holiday comedown. The lights come down too. And every year thousands of us are surprised at how miserable we feel. We ask ourselves “am I really doing what I want to do for the rest of my life?” We wonder why we’re suddenly so snappy with our friends and family, and we look at our empty bank accounts and think about all the ways in which our lives have gone wrong.
Basically January is one long I’ve-got-my-period-coming of a month.
That’s why every December, I start thinking about my January game plan. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD…hilarious) can sneak up on even the bubbliest of people. Knowing that it’s coming and being prepared for it is the first step to making sure your new year feels a little less…existential crisis-y.
Note: if everything in this list is totally new to you, don’t try to do everything! Pick one or two things that feel manageable.
If you’ve never journaled before, there’s no better time to start than a new year. The best part about journaling is that there are no rules, no one is going to see it, and if you hate something you wrote you just cross it out, cover it with a sticker, or rip out the whole page. Journals are also great because if you’re like me, you spend most of your time looking at a variety of screens, and it feels good to do something else with your hands.
You don’t have to do the whole ‘dear diary’ thing if that’s not your style. You can use it to make future plans, make mind maps, or to-do lists. Whatever gets your whirling thoughts out of your brain and onto paper.
One trick that’s especially good for those really bad days is to write down (in pencil) a list of all of the perceived problems in your life one one side of the page. Then on the other side of the page, write down (in pen) a list of solutions. Once you’re done, rub out your pencilled list of problems, and what you’re left with is something of an action plan, with a focus on positive action rather than negative causes.
Exercise, exercise, exercise!
Yes, I know, the last thing you want to do in winter is exercise. But trust me, it’ll feel so good once you get started. And once you’ve built up the habit, it’s not as painful as you think. Starting is the hardest part.
The only thing I’d recommend avoiding in January is the gym, not just because it’s a cliche, but because you and a million other people will have the same idea. Long-time gym-goers even avoid the gym in January, because it’s full of newbies taking the machines. It’s not a fun time.
Instead, just try going for more walks, or starting a beginner’s running program like Couch to 5K. You could follow some YouTube videos in the comfort of your own home, or join a class.
If you’re already a regular exerciser, try switching things up by trying something completely new, or aim to workout with a buddy more often. You could set yourself a new goal to work towards. For example, if you typically bench 60 make it your goal to bench 70. Or if you regularly run 5ks, sign up for a 10k to give you something to work towards.
If you’re completely new to exercise or you have something stopping you from working up a sweat, Nike Training Club (NTC) has some excellent stretching sessions and warm ups. These are super gentle and just help you to move your body around a bit.
Book Activities in Advance
If there’s anything you know that you enjoy doing, book it ahead of time. Maybe there’s a course you’ve been looking at starting, or one-off activities like escape rooms or rock climbing. There could be a play you’ve been meaning to check out, or a new cafe you’ve been wanting to visit.
Making plans in advance is helpful because it gives you something to look forward to, and helps you to structure your otherwise empty and cold month. It’s also extra helpful to pay for it in advance. Otherwise you may find yourself not wanting to do anything in January because it costs money, and December was expensive enough!
If nothing comes to mind, join a Facebook group for your area/city and see what kind of events are happening. Meetup is another great resource for finding new clubs and events, many of them free!
Starting January with a fuller calendar and nice things to look forward to helps to make time pass more quickly, and injects some much-needed joy into your weeks.
New Year’s Resolutions
How many of us set our goals for 2020? And how many of those were thrown out of the window?
New Year’s Resolutions should always be taken with a pinch of salt, and should be set differently depending on your personality.
If you know that you’re driven and enjoy having targets to hit, give yourself something measurable. So instead of saying ‘I’m going to exercise more’, figure out how much is realistic and set that as your goal. ‘I’ll go to the gym 3 times per week’ or ‘I’ll try 1 new sport each month’ is much more concrete.
If you’ve been overwhelmed in 2020 and need something a little easier to manage, give yourself a more fluid goal. This could be ‘buy second hand instead of fast fashion’ or ‘do more acts of service for the people I love.’ Think of something that would have an immediately gratifying effect on your life, but nothing that you feel pressured to keep up
Be Kind to Yourself
This one should be obvious, but it’s one that so often is left forgotten. The holidays are a time for doing all the things you “shouldn’t do” whether that comes in the form of alcohol, calories, or time spent on the sofa doing nothing.
It’s no surprise that when the new year comes, and we stop having excuses for our ‘bad behaviour’, we struggle to pull ourselves out of the ‘bad habits’ we’ve formed. Pulling yourself out of this period of fun and rest isn’t going to happen overnight! So go slow, and remember to be nice to yourself.
If your inner voice is telling you something that you’d never say to your best friend, you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself either. Would you call your best friend a dumb ugly meathead? No. They don’t deserve to hear it, and neither do you.
Find Your People
After 2020, we need the right people in our lives more than ever. If you’ve been feeling lonely recently, you’re (ironically) not alone in that. Studies show that up to a third of young adults felt lonely at least three times per week in 2020…lord only knows what that number rose to at the end of this year!
Now might be the time to reach out and reconnect with people you’re on the verge of falling out of touch with. Is there someone you’ve accidentally left on read? Hit them up with a “Hey, sorry for not replying, things have been crazy! How are you?”
We are the sum of the people who are closest to us. If you’re feeling pressured into things that you don’t enjoy, or just find that actually your best friend isn’t that nice to you, reassess your inner circle. Now is the time to be honest and open about your feelings.
It’ll hopefully be no worse than one uncomfortable conversation, after which you’ll kiss and make up. But if it’s time to say goodbye, you owe it to yourself to be surrounded by love and friendships you can trust.
This goes for social media friends too! If there’s an influencer who makes you feel crummy about yourself, unfollow. They’ll survive without your loyalty and your feeds will be bad-feelings free!
Little Things, Big Change
Here are some other little things which you can start implementing today, to make yourself feel healthier and happier.
- Look at daylight before looking at your phone. When you wake up in the morning, if you’re lucky enough to wake up after dawn, look at the sky before checking your phone. It’s a more natural way to wake up that will help to shake off the sleepiness.
- Invest in a light box. A light box is among the list recommended by the NHS of treatments for SAD. It helps you add more ‘natural’ light into your day, and is especially helpful for those of us in darker countries or who have to spend all day inside.
- Practice gratitude. Find space in your day to focus on the things you have, not the things you don’t. (Another handy tip for your journal!)
- Melatonin. If your brain won’t let you sleep, bottled melatonin is the greatest gift you can give yourself. But be sure to check with your GP first.
- Treat yourself. A donut, a bath, a nap, a glass of wine, a new scarf, a weekend away…If you want it and you have the means to get it, just treat yourself. Life’s too short.
- Long walk + podcast = heaven. Instead of spending the day in bed feeling sorry for yourself, try to get out for a walk with something to listen to. Your body will feel better for having moved, and having something to listen to is perfect if you’re terrified of being alone with your thoughts.
- Make ‘good things’ lists. On really bad days, write a list of everything you can think of that’s good. Movies you love, your favorite jacket, the lunch you had with your mum the other week, your favorite city…whatever makes you smile.