This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and as people across the world cope with the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns it has never been more important to recognise and respond to mental health issues. The theme of 2020’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘kindness’ and so we’ve spoken with Wales international and trainee clinical psychologist, Clare Jones and asked her to share her thoughts on kindness, mental health and how COVID-19 has affected her work…

Kindness is a concept that one could argue has mutual understanding amongst all cultures across the globe. In our current climate, kindness, I believe, has never been so important. It is strongly linked with our wellbeing, it enables individuals to feel less isolated, it boosts self-esteem and assists relationships to strengthen. I think this has to be my favourite theme that Mental Health Awareness Week has focused on so far. It has been warming to see the thought and creativity behind so many acts of kindness whilst under lockdown. I really hope it is something we continue to read and hear about even when we’re clear from this current crisis. I believe that lockdown has provided us all with an opportunity to not only demonstrate acts of kindness to one another, but to understand why it is so important that we are exposed to kindness on a daily basis.

So Clare, tell me a little bit about your job?

I am currently training to be a doctor in Clinical Psychology. I accepted my place on the Doctorate course at Exeter University last year and started in September 2019.

I’m essentially training whilst on the job. Over the next three years I will have to pass five placements (learning disability, child, adult, older adult and specialist) this is completed through Taunton and Somerset Health Board and also complete a doctoral thesis through the University of Exeter. I attend university twice a week and work on placement for the remainder of the week. 

Currently, I am completing my child and learning disability placements. I’m working with families and their children who are finding particular behaviours difficult to manage. I’m building family resources by introducing behavioural strategies and techniques, educating and developing understanding around challenging behaviour and importantly being that containing figure whereby parents – especially during this time – can feel as though they have someone that they can offload to and feel supported during such a difficult period.

It’s a busy job and certainly comes with its challenges to say the least, but an incredibly rewarding job, I’m really enjoying my training so far.

And how has the lockdown had an effect on your work?

It has had quite a significant effect. I probably underestimated how valuable and meaningful face to face appointments are to individuals, but we’re making the most of the alternatives. I do feel ‘Zoomed’ out by the end of most weeks now! Uni has all gone online, so Mondays and Tuesdays its lectures as normal via Zoom, then placement Wednesday – Friday. At the moment, I have been able to continue appointments or meetings via Zoom or telephone. However, it feels as though it’s a bit of a waiting game at the moment. It’s all very dependent on what the different lockdown rules mean for the different services which will determine how I work. I’m having to follow the England lockdown updates which at the moment are slightly different to Wales’. So, I guess I’m just preparing to be as adaptable as I can be in order to still provided quality care for my service users.

This week marks Mental Health Awareness week. How important is it for us to be taking extra care of our mental health at this time?

It’s crucial. I think it’s a great opportunity to take the time to reflect on ourselves, and get to know ourselves a bit better. For example, noticing things about ourselves during this lockdown: have you enjoyed being able to be more active? What exactly is it that you feel you’ve struggled with in lockdown? How have you overcome this?

I think it’s really important to have a good sense of self, something as simple as knowing our strengths, particularly during times where we’re feeling anxious, uncertain or stressed can actually contribute towards helping us through those difficult times.

What I witness a lot is that the first thing people often forget to do is look after themselves and their own wellbeing. It can feel quite selfish in some ways to say “I’m looking after myself,” particularly when we’re worried or concerned about others. Especially if we’re a caregiver for a vulnerable person. However, in order to continue to provide quality care and be that person someone relies on, it is so important that individually we have good well-being. If we take care of our own well-being, we’re more likely to have higher levels of energy and motivation, reaching out to others will feel easier especially if you’re confident in our well-being strategies and have built our own support structures. You may feel as though you have more capacity to take on other people’s worries and concerns.

Mental resilience is particularly important for high-performance athletes such as yourself. As an athlete, how do you look after your mental well-being and that of your team-mates – particularly during the lockdown?

I think I have always been an individual that has used sport and exercise as my main strategy of looking after my wellbeing. Particularly outside of season where you don’t have that training structure for some time. I love getting lost on runs and I’ll also pick up tennis in the summer or do some track training.

Socially, I’ve always been so fortunate to have solid relationships with my family and friends. It goes without saying that my family are my ultimate support structure, however my friends are very much classed as extended family. I love being around those who know me best, not just when everything is going well but during the difficult times. The friends that you can be around when things are tough for you and  you can still be with them without having to pretend things are okay, but they’ll just be themselves, keep you going and make you crack a smile are certainly the ones to keep!

The Welsh squad have really pulled together during lockdown and I expected nothing less. We’re really enjoying weekly training Zoom sessions with one another and we’re helping each other out on the Whatsapp group with various sessions we’ve been doing. I think during any times of uncertainty, and particularly as we’re still a new squad, communication is key, and I think we’ve done really well as a squad to maintain good communication. There’s a good feeling amongst us, despite the future being so up in the air.

The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is ‘kindness.’ What effect do giving and receiving acts of kindness have on our mental well-being?

So I guess I should put my training to good use here and talk science!

Scientifically, kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, which is our ‘feel-good’ chemical in the brain. Kindness can reduce levels of stress, anxiety, blood pressure and can even decrease feelings of low mood and importantly boost our wellbeing. I read recently that kind people age slower, so for the sake of a few less wrinkles I think it’s worth being kind to one another!

Personally, I love seeing people’s faces light up or seeing people’s smiles when I’ve done something to help someone or given someone a bit of a boost. I get a sense of satisfaction in myself if I know I have contributed to someone’s happiness just by being kind.

Sometimes, despite the support of family and friends, people can still find it hard to cope. Where should we turn to if we are struggling consistently with our mental well-being.

This is true, and that can also be a worry for family and friends. In which case I would encourage friends and family to just remind their loved one that you’re there when that person is ready. It’s often difficult to make that judgement of how many times to check in with that person but also, that person must feel ready and willing to talk. So, I would say it’s always helpful to just send a message to say that you’re there whenever they’re ready. It’s also useful to try and ‘normalise’ the situation. At the moment we will all be having a different experience of lockdown, but what we will be able to empathise with one another is the mutual feelings of uncertainty, frustration and even loss. So, it’s important to remember that, we might not be able to compare experiences, but feelings amongst us all are likely to be very similar and that is where we need to connect with one another in order to be able to empathise and support each other.

For a person who is struggling, there are so many amazing organisations that offer great advice and support. The NHS have been working really hard to collate resources for people who are struggling so I would advise to pop onto the NHS website and you’d be able to find some links for the appropriate mental health support service specific to you.

Thank you for speaking to us Clare, before we finish, what is your one top tip for looking after our mental health?

One! That’s tough – can I have two please? Get active and stay connected! Oh, and if we’re being kind – be the person that always smiles to others, its infectious!