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'How I weathered the mental health storm during the COVID-19 pandemic'

"This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but it should just be Health Awareness Week"

In the past year, pharmacists have had more work, more stress and fewer opportunities to relax. Ali Sparkes explains how she and her team kept spirits high

2020 – what can I say? If ever there was a test of one’s mental resilience, this was the year that did it. My team found in the end that it was resilience and strong mental health skills that got us through and, having been asked many times how we managed during the year, it’s a privilege to share with C+D readers what we found worked for us one year on.

March 2020 presented us with a challenge for which we had no time to prepare and which demanded strong leadership. Times such as these can bring out the best and the worst in people, and I emphasised to my team that patients would remember how we treated and served them during this remarkable period. We did our very best in difficult circumstances to remain compassionate and positive and – mostly – we succeeded.

Dispensing happiness

In any situation, I believe we have the ability to choose how to think, if not how to feel. If you are sceptical about this, I strongly suggest reading Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning". When that tsunami of public emotion burst through community pharmacy doors last year, I thought it easier to think of others rather than oneself. If I started to think about the toll it was having on me personally, it would have been too easy to walk away or crumble.

My dear mum's response to most crises was to bake welsh cakes or pasties and distribute them lovingly. They were often posted to cousins or friends at universities if they were having a hard time – and very often arrived at our pharmacy for an eager team to share. I never quite understood the baking response but do now, as above all, it shared love in a way words cannot, demonstrating compassion and a human connection in the simplest terms. It was that simple lesson I tried to follow and while dispensing tablets we also tried to dispense a little happiness and hope.

Our simple daily doses of dispensing happiness continued in various affirmations on social media and while some might consider it frivolous, I relied on those posts as much as some of our followers did when times felt hard – after all, in the words of the Persian poet Hafiz, "the words we speak become the house we live in".

“Happiness is a skill”

Positive language is something we have long encouraged with our team, changing terms liked "failed deliveries" to "missed deliveries" – as we didn't fail in our intention to deliver, only the recipient chose not to be in! To any challenge we ask them to think of three positives.

I strongly believe happiness is a skill and it certainly helped through those dark times and continues to help us every day. All our teams have their own "stuff" going on; every day we face similar life emotions and events, and all grapple with our own personalities.

But the skills I learned a decade or so ago provided me with a great opportunity to observe, reflect and adapt to situations using different approaches. I tell my team that oft-used quote: "We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails".

During the COVID-19 pandemic we were in the eye of a storm, but though we couldn’t stop it, we could always find a way to navigate through it. I'd love to see the skills of happiness and leadership being integral to every part of education as I've learned and seen the benefits in my life and so clearly the past year.

“In a time of social distancing, boundaries seem to vanish”

Another huge part of getting through for us has been music and creativity. Creativity has been the backbone of remaining positive when things seemed insurmountable. Music has always been a major part of my life – a keen pianist, I haven't played for over a year due to the demands of the pandemic, but when I do I am unplugged! It is so important for us mental health-wise for us to have those releases and bouts of creativity where we can lose ourselves and empty our minds of clamouring thoughts and anxieties.

Music as a team also helped us through the pandemic – I realise many pharmacies may not have access to it, but we have found it a refuge and a source of great fun. In the darkest of weeks we had playlists (from yours truly) of mask themes, Muppet songs, Sound of Music singalongs, team members' names , songs from the year of their birth – anything and everything to (in the words of Marie Kondo) spark some joy.

I haven't managed to keep any sort of work-life balance this past year – even Christmas passed without any decorations or gifts – every last morsel of our energy and time sapped. Moving forward, as much as I'm proud of our effort, I hope it's never called for again.

It's strange that in a time of social distancing, boundaries seemed to vanish. I think too much was asked of community pharmacists and we will need to heal as individuals and a profession. Much is talked of NHS colleagues, but we too have taken a battering this past year and being perhaps more reserved in representation have not shone the light on the stories of our own COVID-19 journey.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, but I will finish by saying I so dislike that term; it should just be Health Awareness Week. We are not physical beings separated from our minds. How we feed them in terms of nutrition, what we choose to focus on, and what we say is equally important to our own health and those around us.

Ali Sparkes is director of happiness and technology at The Health Dispensary in Neath, Wales.

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