A helpful interview for Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental health – in the workplace and in our home lives – is a subject that’s received some much needed publicity in recent years. Conversations in the media are more widespread, but real change takes time and many people still find it difficult to recognise problems in themselves, or to confide in others when they do.

This Mental Health Awareness Week we decided to seek the help of a professional, and spoke to Samantha Drain of Nuffield Health about how she helps her clients, and what to look out for in your own life.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself please?

I’m Samantha and I’m a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist in the Emotional Wellbeing team at Nuffield Health. Before Nuffield I was fortunate to gain experience across a broad range of disciplines in both community and inpatient mental health services. I’ve also worked directly with children, adolescents, adults, and the systems around my clients to give them consistency and boundaries to help control their wellbeing.

What is cognitive behaviour therapy?

Cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, is a type of therapy which has an excellent evidence base for helping people with a range of difficulties. It’s been shown to be especially helpful for people with anxiety related difficulties, trauma, eating difficulties and low mood of greatly varying degrees. I think it’s always a tricky one to think if you need some extra support or not because we can all experience these difficulties at various stages of our lives. It could be linked to feeling socially shy, excessive health consciousness, stressful life situations, or just feeling stressed and tense!

I recommend seeking support if there’s something you wish to change, or something which has begun to impact your quality of life. If that’s the case then CBT can be really helpful in understanding why you feel this way and then breaking things down so that you can see how to reduce your symptoms. We often do that by looking at recent times when you’ve experienced distress and unpicking things by looking at your thoughts, feelings and behaviours at the time. That lets us build a really rich picture of what’s truly happening in those moments.

And what do you enjoy most about your job?

For me the best thing about the job is being able to see someone’s progression first hand throughout their treatment. It can be really warming to see someone become the person they want to be, or the person they once were! Even if from an outside perspective the changes may seem small, they’re often the most important and vital changes for that person because they mark a change, a sense of mastery and control, and the start of something new.

Do you have a ‘typical’ client?

We tend to work with people who show signs of anxiety, low mood, trauma, or eating difficulties. Although it’s really difficult to categorise someone into these ‘boxes’, as I’d say we can all experience them to varying degrees throughout our lives. Equally we’ve all been through very different experiences, so things are different for each person. That’s why we make sure we create individual, person centred treatment plans.

Do you consider yourself a role model for mental health? Do you ‘practise what you preach’?

I’d like to think I try to practise what I preach and live a ‘healthy lifestyle’, but it doesn’t always go exactly to plan! Like anyone else when things become overwhelming for me one of the first things to drop is my self-care skills, like staying connected with the friends and family, pursuing interests and hobbies, doing things which bring me a sense of achievement, and exercise and healthy eating. Luckily I have a great support system who remind me to do those things if they notice I’m slipping and taking my eye off the ball.

And what does poor mental health or mental health problems look like?

I would say that’s a grey area. There are diagnostic criteria within industry guidelines for various mental health disorders. But you can argue someone might be in need of professional support if their distress feels unmanageable, or if it’s affecting their functioning and quality of life.

Warning signs vary from person to person, but they might include disturbed sleeping patterns, changes to your appetite, a lack of motivation, or lethargy. You might be worrying too much about different things, withdrawing from your usual activities, feeling irritable, agitated or restless, or experiencing changes to your mood and a muted sense of enjoyment. That’s definitely not an exhaustive list, but they’re good things to look out for.

How can we support ourselves or others if we notice warning signs?

I think the most important step is having the self-awareness that you’re struggling. A good thing to consider is whether there are any causes of stress in your environment which are contributing. If so, can they be altered or adapted? Can you get extra practical support? It’s also really important to communicate how you’re feeling to friends and family. Perhaps your employer too if you feel it would be beneficial or they can support you.

You might also want to speak to your GP. Your GP is your primary care coordinator, so they’ll be the best people to direct you to local mental health support. If you have private medical insurance it could also contain an emotional wellbeing element, so you could contact your insurer to see if this could be an avenue to go down too.

Why does good mental health at work matter?

We typically spend a large proportion of our lives at work, so it can have a profound impact on our emotional wellbeing and quality of life if our needs aren’t being met. Not only can work related stress have a huge impact on us, but the cost of sickness on employers can be considerable too.

What are some typical ‘bad habits’ in work that are detrimental to mental health?

Often when we’re distressed we stop taking care of ourselves. We might isolate and withdraw from colleagues, work from home, take sporadic time off, stop taking breaks, or do extra work outside of hours.

People also avoid speaking to their employers because they’re worried about stigma, blocked career progression or being judged. Recent figures suggest that 95% of people taking time off for mental health difficulties aren’t open about the true reason. Then there’s the problem of 60% of people with anxiety and depression not accessing professional help. When you think about how one in four of us experience mental health problems in any given year, those stats are staggering.

But it’s really important to note that employers have a legal obligation to manage and support mental health issues, and to make reasonable adjustments.

Does technology impact our mental health, and if so why?

I think technology can be a positive and negative influence on our lives. If used in moderation and appropriately, technology opens up a whole new platform for staying connected with friends and family, gaining knowledge from credible sources, accessing education online, and so much more.

If technology use becomes excessive then it can become unhelpful, especially if we isolate ourselves from face to face contact with others, place ourselves at risk by speaking to people we don’t know, or use social media as a platform to ‘compare and despair’ against other people’s lives.

How can we promote wellbeing and tackle the causes of mental health problems?

Causes of distress can also be so varied and personal that it’s hard to say exactly what we need to do to tackle them. It’s very individual.

The most helpful thing we can do is to talk more about mental health. Whether that’s our own personal experiences or asking questions about things we’re curious about. If mental health isn’t openly discussed it’s hard to break down those stigmas. If we break our leg we don’t find it hard to talk about. Why should it be different for our emotional health?

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