For Mental Health Awareness Week (18-24 May) we interview Healthwatch Dorset volunteer Catriona, who comes from a professional background of working in the field of mental health as a counsellor, and offers her experience, tips and helpful resources.
Why did you become a Healthwatch Dorset volunteer?
“I have recently signed up to be a Healthwatch Dorset volunteer, I was triggered to be more proactive with my time when the lockdown announcement was made in relation to COVID-19. I was interested in volunteering for Healthwatch because of my professional background in health and well-being.
“I have many years’ experience in the charity sector, helping young people and families with social, emotional and mental health struggles. This has included therapy as well as support and motivation, offering opportunities for something as simple as a ‘walk and a talk’ or a call of encouragement to get out of bed in the morning. I have also found advocacy an important part of my role, because when you most need help it’s often hard to find the energy to access agencies like the benefits system, housing or the health service.”
With your experience of working in mental health, can you tell us about some of the telling signs that a person may be feeling anxious or depressed?
“It’s important that everyone looks after himself or herself before they can really look after anyone else. It’s important to ‘notice’ how you are – this takes a moment – to stop and ask yourself, how am I feeling, what am I doing, what do I need?
“Stress often triggers us into exaggerating our behaviour, so if you tend to over eat, you might eat more. If you find running is a good way of calming yourself you might over-exercise, pushing yourself to run further or faster. If you struggle to get out of bed and get dressed, you are likely to stay under your duvet if your mental health takes a downturn.
“Noticing this and being able to acknowledge what you are coping with is the first step to helping yourself and then helping others. ‘Noticing’ takes a bit of practice because so many of us are used to rushing and filling every minute of the day with ‘doing’ something, but it’s so important because each of us, individually, is the expert on ourselves and knowing what we need. The next, and really important step is to be kind to yourself – acknowledging and naming the challenges you are facing.
“The very same skills transfer well to helping others; noticing when someone has changed their behaviour or their way of reacting to you is key to helping.
“When you see changes that concern you, acknowledge that you’ve seen this and ask what the trouble is, demonstrating your concern and being kindly curious. You may have to ask several times before you get a genuine answer, but it’s work persevering and when you get the answer you can offer support.”
Could you suggest some positive coping techniques?
“There are many well documented techniques for coping and again, it’s about knowing yourself, and what’s good for you.
“At the start of the lockdown I thought it was a good opportunity to do something I haven’t done before, I bought wool and knitting needles, but that was a mistake! I don’t enjoy knitting and I never will! I’ve now returned to the things that I know work well for me, walking and cycling, reading, cooking and keeping in touch with my friends and family.
“The one thing that is universally helpful, when coping with uncertainty is having a routine; again there are many variations of routine. It might be that a very loose routine is best for you, or you might prefer something more structured, again knowing what suits you is important. If you find yourself saying ‘I should…’ this is a critical voice in your head and some self-compassion is needed.
“Putting some structure into the day, and the night as well is a helpful coping skill, in the current situation, knowing what day of the week it is and marking the weekend in some way will help with isolation.
“It’s easy to feel helpless because COVID-19 affects the whole world and so much is out of our control, but keeping to small regular plans will offer a sense of agency and feeling grounded in your personal world.
“We constantly hear that we are living in unprecedented times, and this is true, we are all coping with challenges to our mental health on a daily basis and we live with global uncertainty about what will happen next. We can only do our best and accepting our anxiety, acknowledging the stress and the worry and that these will lead to difficult feelings will keep us from being judgemental and harsh on ourselves and others.
“If you find you are being hard on yourself, ask yourself what you would advise your best friend to do about your concerns. You will find it easier to access your kindness and compassion for him or her and then you can take the same action for yourself.
“It can be helpful to schedule a ‘worry time’ into your day. Have a regular moment when you consider everything that’s worrying you and then agree with yourself to let go of your worry until the same time the next day.”
Healthwatch Dorset kindly thank Catriona for sharing her knowledge of the field and shared experience, to help others who may be feeling that their mental health is being impacted at this time.
Dorset Council has compiled a list of helpful resources for mental health and wellbeing for adults and children. The list includes apps such as Headspace, websites which live stream yoga and meditations for free, and the ‘listening room’ – a secure, unbiased web chat to help resolve conflict in healthier ways.
You can also find help through the free LiveWell Dorset service which can help you tackle unhealthy coping habits and exaggerated behaviour in times of stress or when our mental health takes a dip.