Mental health support requires widespread education

We are asking people to reach out to a society that doesn’t know how to reach back, writes Niamh Elliott-Sheridan

A sign advertising the closure of National Library of Ireland  in response to  the coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

A sign advertising the closure of National Library of Ireland in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

 

Covid-19 has impacted greatly on most people’s lives, and with the growing restrictions implemented to protect against the virus spreading, mental health and well-being is an issue brought to the forefront once again.

For many, living life one day at a time will be the prevailing strategy. There is a lot of uncertainty and there will almost certainly be a rise in numbers seeking psychological assistance over the coming months.

Of course waiting lists, staff shortages, the availability of services and education about well-being have long been a concern in society.

But this is unchartered territory.

It is an important time both at Government level and in our own lives as we learn how to keep ourselves afloat.

Together we have a responsibility to implement urgent change when it comes to the provision of mental health support.

When this crisis ends, we will still have to deal with issues of climate change, housing, gender-based violence, the likelihood of a recession and the possibility of mass unemployment.

In recent years we have witnessed tremendous improvements when it comes to the recognition of mental health. This has been evident in almost all settings - from research to campaigns and workshops and the redevelopment of the school curriculum. There is also of course a growing interest in wellness festivals, yoga, meditation and self-care.

We’re learning more about gut health and the link between the food we consume and our mental state. Health and wellness apps are plentiful, including mediation apps like Aware, Headspace and Calm. Fitbit and Flyefit are household names.

Gym memberships have risen and body-positivity is a mainstream concept promoted by influential people in the media. The stigma surrounding mental health is continuously fought with open conversation and high-profile voices speaking out.

All of this is wonderful, and I want to live in a world where we can talk about our struggles without judgement, whilst sharing resources openly and lightly.

My concerns lie with primary strategies.

Initially acceptable as an early-intervention strategy, or a way to ease closed-off peers into open communication and expression, telling the world to reach out and talk to somebody is not always enough.

But what else can we do to help those friends who have reached out and said: “I am not okay”.

Last November Irish Times columnist Roe McDermott spoke at FemFest about mental health in Ireland and her words resonated deeply with me.

If we are advocating for peer support and community engagement, we all must be equipped with the resources to adequately respond to someone in need of help. In turn, by learning how to respond to others, we can learn how to manage turmoil in ourselves.

There are limitations to helping one another during this pandemic. We could not have prepared for the mass isolation and change experienced in the last few weeks, but more than ever, now is a time that people need to utilise their internal resources for staying well.

Practical life skills including exercise, sleep hygiene, nutrition, mindfulness and relaxation techniques need to be at the forefront of what have been labelled doss classes in schools for most of the 2000s.

If young people learn healthy ways of living through a cemented, informed structure, they can share and explore their coping strategies with their peers.

We need to teach the difference between hearing and actively listening, learn about supportive body language and how to encourage engagement with the use of resources such as online supports and books.

Programmes

SafeTALK training and ASIST intervention skills are two programmes that teach how to engage with people having thoughts of suicide while connecting them to important resources. ASIST teaches suicide first aid to reduce the immediate risk of suicide and offer support.

I heard of both programmes through my relevant job path, but for the masses working in a field unrelated to social care or wellbeing, they may not know they exist.

Aware hold regular Life Skills courses, online and in-person, teaching the fundamental CBT framework of the “vicious cycle”, which if not understood can be detrimental to our thoughts, feelings, physicality and behaviours.

Jigsaw, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health are holding two online group chats daily on mindfulness, breathing techniques and stress.

Mental health first-aid classes should always be available and offered freely to members of the public, not just during a crisis, with heavy promotion put behind them.

It should be mandatory training for those working with vulnerable people or students. Universities have moved their learning online, so why can’t this be available too?

Not everybody has the capacity, financial or otherwise, to attend therapy or online counselling. Those choices can present barriers for some and should not be the only options available for adequate mental health care.

There is a level of responsibility we need to place on ourselves and the people close to us, to educate and share our knowledge, strategies, what works and what doesn’t.

There are resources out there - use them! Knowing that some of those struggling don’t want advice, but a hand to hold. If you don’t know the answer, acknowledge that and empathise.

Know the resources out there for further referral. It can take months, even years to figure out the ways you can make yourself feel slightly better once in a slump. It is not enjoyable, but the results are priceless.

The year 2020 has taken off to a rocky start. The service industry, the creative industry, and store shift workers have taken an instant blow. There are marginalised communities we are not hearing from, who more than any of us have less access to external resources to build on internal resources.