Work as a mental health doctor can be a wild ride. Equal parts beautiful, messy, fulfilling and terrifying. It’s a career where the goal posts move daily and the whole ‘keep your hands inside the car’ thing is more mantra than advisory. Add one global pandemic, a healthy helping of lock down and a sprinkle of general ‘2020-ness’ and you have one hell of a rollercoaster ride.
Psychiatry and mental health is all about stories. It’s the reason why I love it. It’s in the daily tears, the fears, the silences. The sitting across from someone. With someone. It’s being a buffer for anger and rage, a sponge for anxiety and those who can’t go on. It’s in being with others in some of the best, worst, most exciting and most painful moments of their lives. And we’ve all experienced these emotions this year.
So here we are, remain seated and keep your hands inside the car at all times. I’m a mental health doctor, and these are real questions from real people that I’m being asked the most right now.
“I’ve never felt the stuff I’ve felt this year, is that weird?”
It’s been a year that’s thrown more change and trial at us than any in recent memory. For a lot of us, it might represent more of that than we’ve ever been through before. Noticing and feeling that is – to put it bluntly – anything but weird my friend. Rates of depression, anxiety and adjustment related symptoms like poor sleep, irritability, tension and ping-pong emotions are at an all-time high right now. They bring us together, not apart. A lot of those will be people who’ve never felt those things before and have no history of mental health struggles. Whoever you are. Where ever you are. Whatever you’re feeling. Know you’re not weird. And you’re definitely not alone.
“Lock down’s lifting – so why don’t I feel this lifting too?”
Our brain can soak up stress and strain incredibly well, and I’ve been asked a version of this question a lot in the past few weeks. Why am I still anxious/low/pissed off/scared/*insert emotion here* if things are supposed to be better? Adrenaline, stress responses and mental habits mean a lot of us have just held on tight for the ride. It’s normal and common to start to feel mental impacts after the strain itself has passed. On top of this, lock down lifting represents another big change and many of us have become surprisingly accustomed to COVID life. Feeling nervous, anxious or just “off” about getting back into things and seeing people again is normal. It’s important to call this out, take it at your own pace and reach out for help now – even if things around us are “supposed to be better”.
“Am I going to find someone? I don’t want to be by myself anymore”
This one (breathed out through tears from a young guy in the ED) really tugged the heart strings. Because one of the true tests, and true lessons, of 2020 has been isolation and loneliness. It’s stripped us back to our basics and made us really realise that connection with others is key. If the past 6 months has had you worrying about finding your place, your fit and your person then you’re definitely not alone. When we’re faced with change and struggle it’s common place to feel a pull for greater intimacy and closeness with others. Add lockdown laws and no travel to the mix, and it hasn’t exactly been a recipe for happily ever afters. As I answered in the room that day, I’ll say again here now – you’ll find someone. But it’s making sure we find ourselves – and come through this in one piece – first.
“Is it a bad thing to get to the point of needing medication?”
Questions (and fears) about getting help and treatment for mental struggles have come through thick and fast this year. For more people than ever, it’s been a question they might not have had to ask themselves before. Is it time to see someone? Can I tell him/her how I feel? Is medication going to change who I am? There’s zero shame or blame in needing help, particularly right now, and reaching out for it is vital. Medication doesn’t necessarily mean things are bad or good, but if it’s needed it can be a life saver. Stigma and stereotyping make us feel that needing a medication for mental health might mean a failing, a weakness. I can’t emphasize how wrong this is. Needing help is never weakness.
“Go on then, what’s one good thing about this s*$#- storm of a year?”
An angry question that was maybe meant to be rhetorical, but I did the usual psych-doc thing and answered it anyway. Because in the end, it’s maybe THE question of the year. What has been good about it? It’s one I went home later and asked myself. There’s no denying that the pandemic and everything we’ve been through this year has seen more strain, loss, change and fear join the ride than ever before. But there’s also no denying there’s been some sparks within those coals. And it’s key we call these out and remind ourselves of them as we continue to push through. Gratitude, connection, the little things in life; we’ve been reminded of the things that really matter. So many of the questions I’ve had in my work this year have been around what we’ve learnt about ourselves. That we’ve never had to look so deeply ‘in’ before. So yeah, it’s been a s*$#- storm I hear you loud and clear – but there’s beauty in that too. One good thing? We’ve had to stop and truly listen in as much as out.