Five things to take away from Mental Health Awareness Week 2020
19 May 2020
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual occurrence that has taken on greater urgency this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has never been a greater need to be kind to ourselves and others as we are confronted with news of rising death tolls and told to practise social distancing and stay away from loved ones.
For surgeons and NHS workers in particular, these stressors are compounded by the anxiety, fatigue and stress that may have built up as they continue to supply the essential healthcare services that the country depends on.
We recognise that without the proper care and support for your mental health, it will be more difficult for you to provide outstanding care for others. That’s why we have put together a list of five things you can do if you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with what’s going on.
1. Call the RCS confidential support helpline
Our recently expanded Confidential Support and Advice Service (CSAS) is a great way for you to receive emotional support. By talking to well-trained counsellors, it can help to ease the burden and reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety.
Operated by Health Assured, the service is available 24/7 and if you feel like you would also benefit from peer-to-peer professional support, then the counsellor can arrange for you to be referred to an appropriate surgical colleague who will be able to offer confidential and impartial advice.
If you are experiencing problems in your work or personal life and would like to seek confidential support and advice from a trained counsellor please call the helpline on 020 7869 6221.
2. Talk to someone you trust in your workplace
Talking about your feelings is often the hardest but most important step to feeling better. What prevents us from saying ‘I’m not OK’ is often the fear of being perceived as weak or ‘unstable’.
As Francesca Haarer recounts her experience of dealing with mental illness while she was a surgical trainee: ‘I felt lost, ashamed, humiliated and upset… I recalled the theatre staff who had seen me in tears, and I feared their judgement, fearing that they would think of me as ‘unstable or mentally unwell.’
However, opening up to someone she could trust was exactly the route to getting the help and support she needed. ‘The consultants shared personal pains that they had suffered and how they moved forward. I sat with my back against the wall. These consultants had both gone out of their way to help me; they promised to support me and I felt able to trust them.’
3. Take time for self-care
Exercise and diet can have a noticeable impact on your psychological wellbeing. Regular outdoor exercises, in line with social distancing rules, or even workouts at home, can help boost your mood and improve mental clarity.
‘Be more aware of yourself,’ advises Dr Kevin Teoh, a medical burnout expert and lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. ‘Take time to refresh yourself psychologically, using basic self-care to make sure you get sufficient rest, are eating healthily, exercising and noticing when you need a break.’
RCS Council member Scarlett McNally has studied the beneficial effect of exercise on our bodies and says ‘Walking briskly every day to the shop, rather than driving, for example—has been shown to yield the single greatest gain in health and wellbeing.’
4. Tap into a supportive network
Being a part of a wider network can help alleviate feelings of isolation and provide access to resources and support that otherwise wouldn’t be available. Our Women in Surgery network is a good example of peer-to-peer support to help female surgeons throughout their career. Membership of the network is free and includes a range of benefits including information and advice and a directory of contacts. Follow WinS on Twitter.
In place of face-to-face meetings and gatherings, many have turned to technology to stay in touch. According to Victoria Pegna, the flexible working adviser for the RCS, Zoom catch-ups with colleagues have been fundamental to keeping team morale up. On social media, #SoMeForSurgery has been a way for surgeons to connect with each other and share valuable information and experience during this time.
5. #BeKind to others
In the past few weeks, we have seen extraordinary measures of kindness from people in every corner of the UK, from the weekly public turnout to clap for our carers to Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising walk for the NHS.
For surgeons and NHS staff working under pressure, exercising empathy when dealing with your colleagues is more important than ever.
‘It’s really important to put yourself in other’s shoes’ said RCS Council member Stella Vig during our RCS COVID webinar on mental health. You may know people in your trust who are reluctant to treat COVID-19 patients. Understanding where a colleague’s anxiety is coming from is important as death has touched people in different ways.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, we have the opportunity to show that #KindnessMatters to ourselves and others, especially in the face of adversity.