“The whole of our day is taking questions from people who are in very distressed situations,” explains Emma Carrington, who works on Rethink Mental Illness’s advice line. She’s part of a team who last year took more than 9,000 calls from people worried about their own mental health, or that of a loved one.
Carrington, who has worked for the charity for 18 months, says picking up the phone is a rewarding, but emotionally draining job. “People don’t ring the helpline when everything is going well.”
Taking good care of your own mental health when your job involves helping others with their wellbeing can be challenging.
Professor Femi Oyebode, consultant psychiatrist for Birmingham and Solihull’s Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust, suggests that doctors working in psychiatry may feel more stigma when it comes to seeking treatment for themselves, particularly for severe mental illnesses.
“People who work in psychiatry, almost by definition, are people who are more tolerant of mental illness in general because they wouldn’t be in the profession otherwise. We don’t have any difficulties working with people with unusual behaviour or who are hearing voices, but I don’t think that tolerance is equally shown to people who are working in the profession,” he says.
In addition, strains on the NHS can cause stress to staff across the entire healthcare sector. “We haven’t got enough beds and we are having to treat people at home when they should be in the hospital,” he explains.
“There might be a woman who has an eating disorder, perhaps severe anorexia, who needs a bed, but you haven’t got a bed in the whole of England, so she’ll have to wait a fortnight or maybe a month. Your anxiety that patients might die because you can’t find a place for them is stressful.”
Not taking anxiety home is really essential for those working in mental health services. “Being able to compartmentalise is really important,” says Carrington, who also volunteers as a counsellor for an LGBT+ NHS service. “If you’ve had a really difficult phone call, it’s about talking to colleagues about it to get it out of your system, so you don’t take it home.”
She also relies on long walks with her dog, good food and plenty of sleep to maintain good emotional wellbeing.
Daily trips out with the dog are also important for Karen Deamer, who facilitates sessions at Kinmos - a Birmingham-based charity that helps people with mental illnesses connect with their community. She became the sole member of staff after the charity’s funding was cut two years ago and now runs classes ranging from art to cookery, as well as overseeing fundraising and paperwork.
“It can get a little overwhelming at times, but I have taught myself not to take this home with me,” she says.
After 20 years of working in the mental health sector, during which she has seen many colleagues take time off with mental health issues, Deamer knows the importance of taking care of herself.
“I need regular holidays away somewhere green or near water, I also have regular massages to ease the knots in my shoulders from tension,” she adds. “I have a good boyfriend who listens to me, which is really important. I worked out a long time ago that I don’t work in mental health to save people. People need to take control of their own recovery.”
Medicine is a way of life, not a nine-til-five job, acknowledges Prof Oyebode. “You’re carrying it with you all the time, but nevertheless, it’s not good if you haven’t got other kinds of interests,” he says. “You’ve got to keep an eye on your personal life because that makes it possible to tolerate these stresses of what we do for a living.”
He emphasises the importance of medical professionals having interests outside of work to maintain balance and good mental health. For him, that means getting involved with local theatre, literature and writing groups.
But even taking steps such as these, life events can leave professionals in need of professional mental health support. “No matter how well we try to look after our mental health, things happen in our personal lives,” notes Carrington, who has experienced depression and stress. ”We’re all human at the end of the day and life can be tough.”
Carrington says she’s grateful she’s found a workplace where she can be open with her employer about her own mental health and personal life. The advice line worker is currently going through a difficult time caring for a loved one with a severe mental illness. “As well as speaking to my manager, one of the first things I did was arrange to see a counsellor myself,” she says. “I know that’s going to keep me on the straight and narrow and keep me well.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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