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The importance of reaching out to others

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Debbie Parkinson, PPI Lead for the Innovation Agency, describes how reaching out to others helped her through COVID-19.

It’s just a small gift, but as a mental health first aider, I know only too well how those little acts of kindness can brighten someone’s day, especially during these uncertain times.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 and after catching the coronavirus and experiencing this frightening virus first-hand, I am keen to spread the message that it’s important to reach out to others in times of need as I did when I fell ill – one of the scariest times of my life.

I’m not superstitious, but it all started on Friday 13th March. On that fateful Friday, our chief executive advised us to work from home due to COVID-19 which had taken hold in Wuhan, China and was spreading to the UK.

The first week was fine as I could work from home and attend meetings but still pop out to see family and friends and do a bit of shopping after work.

Then as news stories reported the alarming spread of the virus and COVID-related deaths, the enormity of the situation hit home.

As a local councillor for Standish in Wigan, I put out a call to other local councillors, church leaders and our neighbourhood forum and got stuck into helping vulnerable people in the community who were self-isolating and struggling to get food and medicines.

So engrossed in this community effort, I didn’t think about myself. As a diabetic with mild asthma, I am in the high-risk category. My children urged me to stay at home but I am so used to working with people and am not one for sitting still. It seemed as though it was all happening to others and not me so I went to community meetings with others including our Rector.

Then I started with a banging headache and couldn’t get warm even with the heating on full blast. I developed a cough and sore throat, then my lungs began to ache.

In denial, I convinced myself it was just a cold. But on day three I finally rang the doctor. He confirmed my worst fears and gave me the standard advice: “Stay home, take paracetamol and ring 111 if symptoms worsen.”

The next three days are a bit of a blur. Living alone I was frightened. The UK was on lockdown and the news was full of images of COVID patients on ventilators struggling to breathe.

In between sleeping, I watched the newsreaders announce the number of people dying from COVID19 was rising, some close to home, which increased my fear and anxiety.

My family were in constant contact and of course, like anyone else I played down my feelings to reassure them. They couldn’t visit due to lockdown so there was little they could do and I didn’t want to worry them.

But being so sick when you’re home alone was scary. I knew I should ring 111 as I had got worse but was fearful of being taken into hospital and never coming out.

Seeing others recover helped my anxiety and after a few nights of sitting in a chair, dreading going to bed in case I didn’t wake up, I finally went to bed. I didn’t sleep all night but things were starting to get back to normal.

Looking back, what got me through the worst of it was the help and support from family, friends and colleagues. 

Friends, family and neighbours helped with practical things, including leaving cooked food on my doorstep, leaving shopping for me. My closest neighbour told me she went to the front of my house every morning to check I had opened the blinds just to make sure I was OK.

Not being able to go out and see other people has been hard. As Patient and Public Involvement Lead for the Innovation Agency, I work closely with patients and members of the public to ensure they have a say in our health improvement programmes so I am used to spending lots of time with people.

Messaging with others was my lifeline. Being reassured and encouraged, especially by colleagues who understood and I could be more honest about how I felt with, really helped me. 

Online social activities helped me to stay connected and lift my spirits. A drink and draw art class hosted by my colleague Karla almost a week after I fell ill made me laugh. I washed my hair, put on my makeup and joined via Zoom despite not being able to draw for toffee and although I still looked rough knew it would help.

WhatsApp messages and video calls kept me linked to the outside world and not just the scary news on TV. I cannot thank those who kept in touch enough - they kept me sane.

In my role as a mental health first aider and Wellbeing Champion for Lancashire Care, I’d like to echo the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week - kindness.

Now I am over the worst of COVID, I am repaying the kindness I received in my community by distributing food parcels to the elderly and vulnerable and sewing scrub bags for local hospitals and care homes.

At times like this, no matter how independent you are, you need the help and support of others.

Asking for help is difficult but it is vital now more than ever that people reach out to friends, family and neighbours for support to help reduce anxiety and loneliness and boost their emotional and mental health.

It worked for me and you’ll be so glad you did.

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