‘Why we need World Mental Health Day more than ever this year’

This op-ed was written by Dr. Barbara Stilwell, Executive Director of the Nursing Now campaign. This article was originally posted on the Nursing Times website on World Mental Health Day. You can access it here

While the global pandemic has raged, Nursing Now has focused on providing support to nurses. Some of this support has been sharing clinical knowledge, some about encouraging leadership and some about compassion for self and others. We have heard sad stories of nurses overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and stress they face every day. And while some managers have been dreadful others have been kind and really listened to what nurses are asking for or reporting on. It’s a patchwork quilt of the good and the not so good, as is life. 

What we do know is that this pandemic has affected the wellbeing of everyone in different ways, but the effects of stress are a common thread for all of us. The Institute of Employment Studies in the UK has carried out a survey of 850 people to ascertain how working from home has affected their health. They found that young people – those aged 18-29 – had worse mental health though all age groups experienced changes in both physical and mental health including increased fatigue and back pain. For people living in isolation through lockdown and those who have had seriously ill loved ones, the stress has been unimaginable to most of us.

The International Council of Nurses recently reported that 60% of their national nurses’ association membership find that burnout, anxiety, depression, and fear of stigma and discrimination are common mental health issues for frontline nurses.  

The burden of mental illness is underestimated in the population and sadly still carries stigma that leads to more ‘respectable’ diagnoses of physical disorders being offered and not mental illness. A 2016 Lancet Psychiatry article estimated that mental illness accounts for 32.4% of years lived with disability, while previous estimates had been 21.2% – considerably lower. Stress and anxiety disorders are not serious mental illnesses in the same way as, say, bipolar disease, but they are real, can impact physical health and mental functioning as well as social interaction, and are probably under-reported. 

What can we do?

Mental health is personal. We all experience things in different ways and of course we cannot fully understand what someone else is going through.  Blanket solutions won’t work but here are 3 ideas that might make a critical difference to you and to someone around you.

  1. Listen. This is not only lending an ear, but learning to listen deeply. This means that we listen to understand, not to intervene. We learn to listen for what is not said, for what the body language is telling us. If someone is saying they are OK but looking distressed, ask them what’s going on for them. 

As nurses we get used to listening to our patients and clients, but what we have learned is that in these times of high stress  it is equally important to listen to our colleagues and also to our own inner voice. But don’t forget to keep what you hear confidential. And if you consider that someone needs ongoing support be sure to help them go that next step by seeing their GP or a counsellor. 

  1. Be kind. This may be critical when there is a shared anxiety – such as now, during Covid 19. People may struggle with uncertainty – what will happen next? Is there another lockdown looming? Will I get the disease? Will there be enough Personal Protective Equipment? 

Collective anxiety means that all of us may behave in unusual ways. It is important not to judge but to recognise that people may be struggling even if they don’t articulate this. This may be true of you too so try to show colleagues – and yourself –  as much understanding and compassion as possible. 

If you are a manager you can encourage your team to share their personal reflections – maybe at the beginning of a meeting or in a specially dedicated meeting time. You can do this virtually too. It is an investment of time and space for people that will have huge benefits.

  1. Get those endorphins going. We have all been hearing about the importance of physical health during these stressful times. There is a strong link between physical and mental health and looking at the release of endorphins in the body helps us understand why. 

Endorphins are released as a physical response to pain and stress. They have been called the ‘happy hormone’. We know that some activities are more likely to produce endorphins such as physical exercise, eating chocolate  and having sex. 

But we can help ourselves and each other to get the endorphins going by sharing music, poetry, laughter, and meditation. We have been trying this during some of our webinars – having someone read a poem that means something to them. Musicians have been sharing their lockdown sessions with us. We have been encouraged to appreciate nature as we walk – hearing many more birds singing while there was so little road traffic.

What can you do at home, in your work team, with your friends, to share soul touching experiences that make you feel good? 

An uncertain future

It is hard to know what lies ahead for all of us. Learning to live day by day is the first step towards greater peace of mind, and perhaps one of the most difficult. But we are in this together, like it or not. In this Global Mental Health Day let’s practice being attentive to others and sharing those things that make us feel good.

And don’t forget that this starts with ourselves – listen to yourself first. What do you need? Peace and quiet? A phone call? Music? 

Your continued resilience will help all those around you.