Now that "the most wonderful time of the year" has wrapped up, many people often report feeling a bit flat. For some, it's the usual "January blues", but for others, poor mental health can cause major disruption to their lives. Whether it's anxiety, depression, low mood or loneliness, this time of year can be incredibly difficult for many people. Sadly, patterns of increased rates of depression during the holidays and into January have been well-documented in healthcare.
As a doctor, I see this first-hand. Within my clinical work, I can signpost my patients to additional resources, or in severe or urgent cases, where someone is in immediate danger, I can refer to the crisis team to take over care. A large amount of mental health issues do not necessarily reach health care and given the wide spectrum of poor mental health this is understandable.
But when it comes to everyday people supporting friends and family, things can be a little trickier. Spotting the signs of poor mental health is the easy part. The challenge is what to do after.
I want to share some advice for helping friends, family and colleagues this year. I worked closely with Active IQ during the development of the Level 2 Award in Mental Health Awareness and one of the most important and unique areas of this qualification is the first aid component. Since its launch, more than 2,000 people have successfully completed the training. If you're lucky enough to have one of those people in your network, I am confident they now possess the skills and confidence to help anyone struggling with a mental health issue.
However, for anyone else, here are a few thoughts on how to make sure you can support those around you that need it.
Don't underestimate the importance of checking in with your friends, family and colleagues to see how they're feeling. This is important to do even if they seem well, but especially if they don't. Simply saying, "You don't seem quite right. Is everything OK?" can present someone with an opportunity to talk about their challenges and help them feel less alone. It allows conversation to happen and helps take the pressure off. This can be a phone call or a simple text. It doesn't need to be a grand gesture.
Talk and listen
If someone has told you they're struggling, offer to talk to them about it. Don't try to solve their problems but listen empathetically. Let them know you're there for them. In these cases, a one-to-one setting in a private environment or a different, more relaxed environment can be helpful. Confidentiality and trust are key elements to build in order to have an effective conversation.
Provide support and signpost for help
One of the biggest challenges is that the NHS waiting list for psychological therapies is very long. If you have encouraged a friend, family member or colleague to seek the help of their GP, it may be a long time before they can speak to someone.
But in the meantime, there are some other options you can consider to help them. First, ask them to investigate their corporate wellbeing package. Many companies offer free or discounted access to a variety of mental health apps and resources, and in some cases access to a certain number of hours or sessions with a therapist.
You can also refer them to tools like Mood Gym, an interactive self-help book that helps you learn and practice skills that can help to prevent and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. You could also look at something like Moving Medicine which gives helpful advice on how to have conversations about how physical activity can help improve mental health. Mindfulness apps can also be helpful tools, such as headspace.
These may all seem too simple to be effective, but do not underestimate their impact. Some people worry that opening up the lines of communication might upset someone or cause them to think about something unpleasant. As a doctor, I can say unequivocally that the benefit-to-harm ratio is outstandingly favourable.
The start of the year presents an opportunity to do things differently. So, if talking about mental health feels awkward, it's time to break down some barriers. If you've never asked someone how they're feeling, do it now. You never know how important that simple question might be.