Wellbeing

We Are In A Mental Health Pandemic Too And We Need To Realise It

The true impact of COVID-19 goes far deeper than the physical effects of the virus. Each day, we see the new horrifying death rate and the many thousands of new cases that have been detected.

But what we don’t see is the number of people who are suffering immensely mentally as a result of the pandemic.

Sure, we have heard the news stories stating that the situation is ‘affecting people’s mental health.’ But like most phrases that are said repeatedly over time, the term ‘mental health issues’ becomes a throwaway statement, background noise. After a while, it stops having meaning when we hear it.

But what we are really talking about here is actual people’s live– wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues, neighbours – who are, quite possibly, going through the worst experience of their lives right now.

And yet most of us are expected to carry on working as normal in our new makeshift home offices, join video chats with colleagues appearing chipper, continue to be good partners and parents, carry out our usual household tasks, and now, home-school our children.

And since the latest lockdown, we can’t even exercise in our favourite parks, woods or open spaces, unless we’re lucky enough to live on the doorstep of these places. Walking in the great outdoors is incredibly important for mental wellbeing, but the rules say that we can only take our daily exercise in our local area. This is fine if you live by the beach or in a rural area, but what if you live in a flat with no garden in a city centre?

And what about people who are living alone and working from home? Or those who are missing their Mums, Dads, children, grandchildren or friends deeply with no end currently in sight? What about those who are struggling mentally but they can’t see their friends or family for physical support?

The uncertainty, fear, boredom and isolation that many people have been experiencing for the best part of a year is clearly taking its toll on many of us. Unsurprisingly, figures show that cases of mental illness have increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and we only have to talk to the people around us to know that this is true.

And this is all happening, right now, in what is notoriously one of the most depressing times of the year, even in ‘normal’ circumstances. So much so, that the third Monday in January is dubbed ‘blue Monday’ due to the gloomy weather, post-Christmas blues and the financial strains following the festive period.

But what if you already had a mental health issue that had been affecting your life, even before the pandemic? The added anxiety and stress caused by the virus will undoubtedly have exacerbated the symptoms of many people already suffering with a mental illness.

As a long-term sufferer of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), my symptoms rocketed soon after the start of the pandemic, in March last year. I had been doing very well before that, but my anxiety and mental ruminations increased drastically, and I soon felt at my lowest ever point.

OCD sufferers have a need for certainty, and there is, of course, nothing certain about a pandemic; other than the fact that it’s depressing and frightening.

Whether we had pre-existing mental health issues or not prior to the pandemic, is actually irrelevant. What matters right now is the level of support that we get from now on to help us get through this. But it must start NOW.

What can we do?

Raise awareness

We need to speak up about mental health issues, now more than ever before. Openly showing our support and acceptance for these conditions, whether we’re suffering ourselves or not, will only help to remove the stigma that is, sadly, still attached to mental health conditions.

What most people don’t realise is that EVERYBODY has mental health issues at some point in their lives. It’s all part of being human. Some are fairly minor that don’t impact upon their lives much at all, while other people have more severe issues which make their lives very difficult and unhappy. The more we make people realise this and speak out about mental health, either verbally or publicly, the better.

Be there for each other

From my own experience, on the plus side, the pandemic has broken down a few walls and, ironically, has given more of a sense of togetherness. People in my local community seem to have pulled together and have tried to make the best of the situation we have found ourselves in. It seems to have made us all a bit more ‘human.’

If we’re strong enough ourselves, we can all do our bit by making extra effort to check-in with those around us and giving people a chance to tell us if they’re not ok.

Improve workplace mental health support

Whether companies considered the mental health of their staff before the pandemic or not, they need to start now. Especially if those staff members are now working in isolation, away from the watchful eye of managers and fellow team members.

I’ve worked from home for the last 13 years and it can be very difficult, particularly if you suffer from mental health issues. Ironically, since the pandemic, I’ve actually felt more closely connected to colleagues than ever before because of the effort we’ve put into video meetings and events; undoubtedly because we’re all craving some human contact again.

In 2017, the Government commissioned an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of their staff. The ‘Thriving at Work’ report recommends that by 2027, all organisations, whatever their size, will be equipped with the awareness and tools to not only address, but prevent mental ill health caused or worsened by work. It also says they should be equipped to support individuals with a mental health condition to thrive and be aware of how to get access to timely help to reduce sickness absence caused by mental ill health. The full report can be found here:

Exercise

Exercising can be one of the hardest things to do if we’re feeling depressed or low. It’s hard to find the motivation, even though most of us know that it will benefit us. But just a short walk every day can make such a difference. There are so many times that I’ve felt down and stressed in the house, and it’s only when I’ve gone out for a walk that I’ve realised just how much I needed to get out and blow the cobwebs away. Even if you don’t feel like it, chances are you’ll feel better for it.

Again, looking on the plus side, lockdown has also given me far more time to dedicate to yoga and I’ve become pretty obsessed with it over the last year. But this is an obsession I’m willing to accept! I can’t recommend yoga enough for a strong and healthy body and mind. I do a short practice every morning and it sets me up for the day.

Seek support from Shawmind 

Acceptance

Coping has a lot to do with acceptance: Accepting that the pandemic is depressing and difficult and that we feel low or more anxious because of it.

As human beings we often try to be the best we possibly can, because we think that’s what is expected of us. But trying our best and being the best are two different things.

By accepting that times are hard, that a strain is being put on our relationships, that home-schooling is tough and that we feel down takes the pressure off a bit. Life has its ups and downs, and this is certainly one of those downs. But we’re all in it together and we’ll come out of it together.

Make your own fun

I turn 40 this year, and to mark my big birthday I’m going to do 40 new things during 2021. These things will range from fairly mundane activities that are new to me, such as baking a certain cake or finally mastering a French plait after all these years! While others will be more challenging, such as walking 40 miles in the summer to raise money for Shawmind, and this week I completed 40 vinyasa yoga flows in succession.

I’ve had great fun creating my list of challenges and experiences. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 40, 21 or 99 this year. The point is, a list has given me things to focus on, it’s made me think creatively and it’s given me things to look forward to. I’d recommend this to anybody at the moment.

At home, we’ve also had a lot of ‘party nights,’ ‘discos’ and other ‘events’ over recent months. They’re pretty much the same as our usual days and nights at home, of course, but with a special name. That and the fact that my seven-year-old daughter has done my make-up and made me wear a cocktail dress. Well, I’m not exactly stacked socially at the moment, so I may as well get the use out of it…

Rebecca Morris is a marketing and PR specialist with a passion for promoting mental health awareness, after suffering from OCD since she was a child. She’s a proud mum of two, a yoga enthusiast and an animal lover. You can connect with her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/rebecca.hampson.1069/), LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebecca-morris-5471b226/) or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/rahamp/)

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Teachers’ journey throughout the pandemic

What was going through your head when the first lockdown was announced? I know my first questions were ‘How long will we be in this lockdown for?’ and ‘When will I be able to see my friends again?’ But then I realized there would be some people out there that had a lot worse things to worry about, ‘Will I lose my job?’, ‘Will I be able to pay my rent this month?’, so really, I didn’t have it bad at all. But after hearing about all the children being taken out of the classroom and thrown into online learning, my thinking changed: 

‘What did our teachers have to go through?’ ‘What was is like to be a teacher during the pandemic?’ ‘How did teachers manage their wellbeing during all of this?’

When the first lockdown was announced

I personally heard people say negative things about teachers when the first lockdown was announced, but I think those people may have been too quick to judge. We forget sometimes that teachers are human beings just like you and me. Teachers have fears, stresses, anxiety; and they have other family members to take care of too, just like everyone else. They also don’t work the standard 9-5 that people assume they do. They start early in the morning, finish sometimes late into the evening, and even then, they take their worries and stresses about their pupils home with them. For many, teaching is a calling and not just a job.

I spoke with head teacher Kelly MacKay who, in January, was dealing with flooding in her local area, on top of her duties as head teacher of a primary school. Then, shortly after the flooding chaos, she was hit with the lockdown announcement. As head teacher, the first thing Kelly had to do was prepare the staff and parents for the pandemic. Remote learning had to be put in place, parents had to be notified of the changes that would be taking place, at the same time Kelly still had to conduct her normal head teacher duties. 60% of primary school parents across the UK later reported that they were struggling with the remote learning, so getting this system working as smoothly as possible added to the stress and pressure that Kelly, like so many other head teachers, was placed under. Not only that, but also wellbeing training had to be put in place so that the teachers could still do their job effectively and stay well mentally and emotionally. Kelly’s school managed to provide their students with remote learning within one week of the announcement. Amazing!

Switching to remote learning

After speaking with author, part-time lecturer and former head teacher David Gumbrell, I have realized that one positive thing that came from the pandemic for teachers is that the relationships between themselves and other teachers became so much stronger. There was the realization that the connectedness between staff members was what made remote learning work. They had to be resilient and work together as a team to be able to do their jobs successfully.

I think I can speak for most people when I say we all have some sort of routine we each follow day in day out. Having a routine gives us feelings of safety and security. When teachers had to go from face-to-face learning to remote learning, a whole new routine had to be created for themselves and for their students. David came up with a strategy to break up his lectures while still providing work for his students. This was so important because the students were getting the education they needed as well as having breaks in between to support their wellbeing and carry on interactively with their class. Throughout the pandemic it is so important to create strategies and routines. One strategy David kindly shared with me was simple: self-compassion. He informed other teachers that they had to take care of themselves first to be able to help and teach their students successfully. Self-compassion is composed of three parts: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. These three parts mean that you are understanding and kind to yourself, you realize you aren’t the only one that feels pain and then overcoming your pain and suffering through mindfulness. Self-compassion is all about loving yourself through the pain and suffering you are feeling.

Preparation strategy

Many people have some sort of mental health related issue at some point in their lives, and teachers are no exception. So imagine how the pandemic has affected the number of those teachers who might have already been suffering with anxiety and stress for example, before the pandemic. The government provided funding for teachers to help their student’s mental health but, how are teachers supposed to provide their students with help when they themselves are struggling? We need to help our teachers with their wellbeing so that they can help their students – our next generation! It has been proven that children mirror the behaviours of their role models and those they spend a vast majority of their time with; we need our teachers to be happy and mentally & emotionally healthy so that children can mirror their positivity.

Adam Parkes, who specializes in teacher wellbeing kindly shared with me one of his strategies for helping teachers during the pandemic. He told the teachers that he works with to ‘visualize the worst-case scenario’. This may sound counter-intuitive, but everything else that then happens instead will seem like a bonus! And ‘Prepare to test positive for COVID-19.’ By following this advice, teachers could then plan and prepare to work remotely and would already have everything in place to carry on, should COVID strike.

Support our teachers

Steve Waters, a former teacher who is now working with schools to create strategies for teacher wellbeing, says that in a recent poll of head teachers in the UK, a staggering 47% said that they were planning to leave their jobs after the pandemic. We were already in need of teachers and the pandemic has now compounded the problem. It has really caused teachers to view their jobs in a completely different light. According to Steve, the way that schools and their results are being inspected during the pandemic really needs to be re-considered as it is driving our teachers to leave their jobs which will then have a massive negative impact on the education of our next generation.

As Adam Parkes said, ‘Don’t let our teachers feel like they are pawns in a game.’ Don’t forget that teachers are just human beings like you and me, they are going through the exact same stresses caused by the pandemic, that you and I may share, on top of giving your children and everyone else’s children the education they need and deserve.

Resilience, self-compassion, connectedness, kindness, flexibility, active listening and expecting the unexpected. These are all things teachers have had to learn and apply to their everyday life whilst still coping with the already-present stresses of the teaching. We need to support our teachers now more than ever!

Shawmind aims to train 151,000 teachers in the basics of mental health support over the next 5 years – you can help us achieve this goal!

 

 

Article written for Shawmind by Angelica Shaw

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