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Community pharmacy is uniquely placed to help tackle the mental health crisis

Today marks Time to Talk Day’s ninth birthday. Anna Matthews explains how community pharmacy can provide vital mental health support to patients who are struggling 

We in community pharmacy provide a unique service to our patients. We are an amalgamation of retail, dispensing, advice and treatment. Our abilities span educating patients on healthy living and selling products over the counter to diagnosing and treating a wealth of different health conditions.

Increasingly, we are providing more clinical services, with an uplift in the amount of community pharmacist independent prescribers and more focus on clinical services, such as the common ailments service in Wales.

It’s safe to say we’re a highly skilled bunch – but what we’re also really good at is knowing our patients.

This is something we’ve always done well. It's because we care about them.

I also think the past few years have highlighted the importance of this relationship. Being open to the public throughout the COVID-19 pandemic meant that we’d often be among the only people our patients were seeing day to day.

Read more: Public wants pharmacies to play greater role in mental health and in care homes, NPA finds

We provided stability at a time of uncertainty, alongside other healthcare providers and key workers, and I think we should be pretty proud of that.

The relationship and trust we share has been invaluable in allowing us to spot when our patients and customers aren’t themselves.

I’ve personally seen a decline in the general mental health of many of my patients over the past few years.

A lot of the time, this has been due to isolation, loneliness, anxiety and worry over the state of the world. It’s been a tough time for all of us.

One in four people in England will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year, according to an NHS Digital household survey in 2007.

Meanwhile, a similar survey from 2014 revealed that one in six people in England reported experiencing a common mental health problem like anxiety and depression in any given week.

I’d argue that we don’t even need these statistics to know that mental health conditions are extremely common. It’s clear to see from our own observations in practice and life in general.

We already advise, treat, provide information on, and signpost to other healthcare professionals for many conditions.

Given the prevalence of mental health problems, could we consider including them in the list of 'things your pharmacist can help with'?

Well, fairly obviously, it’s not that simple. Mental health is an extremely broad subject encompassing a huge number of conditions, each ranging from mild to severe, and it’s also highly subjective.

There are a few innovative studies looking at developing our skills to provide intervention in mental health, such as one published this year on wellbeing interventions in community pharmacy. However, it’s not common practice at the moment.

Read more: Boots launches online mental health services following demand from patients

We are also all aware of the current pressures on community pharmacy, and adding extra work to an already jam-packed day is not an appealing thought right now.

But can we do more to support our patients struggling with mental health? I think so – by improving awareness of self-help resources, and knowing what services are available in our area that we can signpost patients to at the first sign of declining mental health.

For me, it’s about streamlining a process that I think a lot of us are already trying to tackle.

In my own practice, I’ve struggled to know where to direct patients who are feeling low or anxious. I have often relied on where the local surgeries suggest, leaflets I’ve got to hand in the pharmacy, or even had to Google it.

I’ve also spent a lot of time looking for ways to help the person in front of me. When you are struggling with your mental health, everything seems a lot harder to do, and reaching out for help or navigating thousands of resources online can seem daunting.

If we as professionals have a good idea on what to do – and where to go – when faced with someone struggling with their mental health, we can have confidence in signposting patients quickly and effectively.

Read more: Clinical podcast: How can pharmacists protect their own mental health?

A survey I circulated last year directed at pharmacy staff in Wales showed that, of 40 respondents, 66.7% were either “confident” or “extremely confident” in recognising the symptoms of mental health conditions in an individual.

However, just 41% were “confident” or “extremely confident” in their ability to signpost individuals to an appropriate resource to support their mental health. Only 15.4% found it “easy” or “very easy” to access resources when signposting.

For this reason, I have developed some bilingual posters detailing a selection of mental health resources available in Wales. These can be used by healthcare professionals to refer to when signposting patients, or by the public to access these resources themselves.

They are on display in all of Avicenna's branches in Wales.

My hope is that they will help to inform patients on what support is available to them, encourage the public to treat wellbeing as part of healthy living and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

They are neither a cure nor an alternative to seeing a GP, but they could be a useful additional tool for people needing support.

In short, considering how common mental health problems are, and the unique relationship we have with our patients, it seems to me that we in community pharmacy are well-placed to recognise early symptoms of deterioration in mental health and signpost appropriately.

Read more: ‘Heroic’ pharmacy team member praised for stopping patient from self-harming

By improving patients' awareness of self-help resources, and streamlining the signposting process, we can make a big impact on improving mental health.

Moving forward, I’m hopeful that uptake of mental health first aid training will increase, and we can develop our role in supporting mental health in community pharmacy even further. Watch this space!


Anna Matthews is pharmacy manager at Avicenna Pharmacy in south Wales

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