Posted in Covid Conversations, Longer reads

COVID CONVERSATIONS…with a mental health nurse

COVID-19 has changed all of our lives. In this short series, I will be sharing people’s stories and experiences of the pandemic. This, is Covid Conversations.

In the past year, health care workers have found themselves facing situations which they probably never imagined. We have all seen the footage of hospital emergency rooms inundated with COVID-19 patients. We have seen the ambulances lined up outside hospital doors, soldiers preparing for battle. But it is not just those working directly with COVID-19 patients who have been affected by the pandemic.

I spoke to an individual whose hospital ward suffered an outbreak of Covid-19 cases. For privacy reasons, her identity will not be revealed. Let us call her Tara. Tara is a mental health nurse, on a ward dedicated to caring for adults with dementia. She is one of many who have worked throughout the pandemic to protect and care for some of the most vulnerable in our society, putting herself at risk, and tragically catching COVID-19 in the process.

I asked Tara her earliest memory of COVID-19 being spoken about at work. “We started wearing a mask before anyone was really calling it a pandemic,” recalls Tara. “Where we work predominantly with elderly people, we knew how vulnerable they were, and so started taking precautions very early on.”

Tara and co-workers were already struggling to deal with the practicalities of the pandemic, before the COVID outbreak on their ward. “Staffing became a nightmare,” said Tara. “We rely a lot on agency staff but when the first wave of COVID hit no one was picking up shifts as everyone was panicking and afraid. Our own staff were also worrying about whether they had symptoms, so lots of people were taking days off, even if they just had a cold or a headache. We had to take every possible symptom seriously.”

“We look after patients who can be extremely aggressive and regularly scratch, bite, and spit on us”

Despite their best efforts, COVID-19 swept through the ward, spreading rapidly from patient to patient. “It was terrifying,” recalled Tara. “On the news they would always point out it is the older population with other health conditions that were dying from COVID, and all of our patients are in that category. We were so lucky that no one got significantly ill, but it didn’t stop it being an incredibly stressful time.”

It is no surprise when working with so many positive COVID patients, that Tara herself was one of many who became unwell with COVID-19. “We look after patients who can be extremely aggressive and regularly scratch, bite, and spit on us. It is surprising really that more of us didn’t catch the virus.”

“My main worry was that people would think I wasn’t doing my job correctly,” said Tara. “I was embarrassed and thought my colleagues would be disappointed or think I wasn’t wearing the correct PPE.”

“I would always leave shifts with red marks all over my face.”

Concerns were raised on Tara’s ward as to the effectiveness of the PPE they were provided with. In a job which involves high levels of personal care with vulnerable people, you would assume that the protective clothing and masks given to them would be of the highest quality. Unfortunately, this was not the case. “I remember watching the news and seeing doctors in full length gowns and big face masks, while I was using a mask you could have bought in any supermarket and a small plastic apron. It made you feel quite vulnerable.” The nurses and staff had to deal with the PPE they were given. “I tied the mask so tight that I would always leave shifts with red marks all over my face. We really did the best we could”.

You start to wonder how people in health care have continued to work, every day, despite all the challenges and devastations of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are emotionally drained,” said Tara. “Dealing with the pandemic is really hard, but we pulled together as a team. It was actually nice to go to work during the national lockdowns so that I could see my colleagues.”

“We knew we were doing an important job, and that helps keep you going”

“It is also incredibly rewarding,” said Tara. “I knew I was caring for those who really needed it, in a time when they couldn’t see any of their family or loved ones. We knew we were doing an important job, and that helps keep you going.”

We will all know someone in our lives who has had experiences similar to Tara. Someone who has worked tirelessly, selflessly, to continue to provide care and support for people who need it the most.  They are heroes, every single one, and all deserve a medal  (and more importantly, a pay rise). Every day they are putting other people’s health before their own, and that is nothing short of remarkable.

Posted in Covid Conversations, Longer reads

COVID CONVERSATIONS…with a student paramedic.

COVID-19 has changed all of our lives. In this short series, I will be sharing people’s stories and experiences of the pandemic. This, is Covid Conversations.

A year has passed since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first Covid-19 lockdown. On March 23rd ,while reflecting on the 365 days which have passed and the hundreds of thousands of lives tragically lost, people were encouraged to light a torch or candle to commemorate those no longer with us.

However, we must also consider those who are still here, but whose lives will be changed forever. Health care and front-line workers have experienced the chaos, confusion, and catastrophic casualties of the past year, and done so with extraordinary dedication and selflessness. One of these such groups are paramedics. They worked tirelessly while the infection rate was at its highest in order to protect those who were most vulnerable. It became a team effort, a real ‘hands-on-deck’ operation, and many student paramedics, whose final year exams were cancelled, were called back to London to assist on ambulances.

Jessica Male, 22, from Southampton, was one of these students. After being advised to move back home when lockdown was first announced, Jessica was one of hundreds called upon to return to the capital and provide essential support.

“It is the busiest the ambulance service has ever been and so they called upon third year paramedic students to help,” said Jess. “We were one day of training to show us what it would be like, and then we were sent out.”

“I worked with a range of people, some were paramedics and we also had some firefighters helping us. It was everyone rallying together to try and help as many people as possible.”

“We were leaving people who we knew were going to die. It was quite terrifying”

“It was bizarre,” said Jess, while reminiscing on the past year. “I remember during the training session they were telling us how many patients were having to be left at home due to the hospitals being so busy. People who normally would have been blue-lighted in the ambulance were being left in their homes. We were leaving people who we knew were going to unfortunately die. It was quite terrifying.”

Student paramedics were amongst many in medical professions asked to help manage the uncontrollable infection rates of COVID-19. Retired NHS staff, student nurses, and junior doctors were also deployed to support hospitals with overflowing COVID patients.

While reflecting on the year which has passed, Jess also recognises the long-term implications of the pandemic on our future.

“Health anxiety is now a massive thing. Mental health services are going to be inundated with calls and trying to catch up with months’ worth of cancelled appointments.”

“People are also more reluctant now than ever to go into a hospital, for the fear of getting COVID-19. Sometimes I have to say to them, you are more at risk staying home and not getting help, than going into hospital and getting the virus. It is a tricky balance, and a really hard decision for some people to make.”

“It was so hard reading about people thinking the whole pandemic was a hoax when we have colleagues die from the virus”

The twenty-two-year-old believes that social media sites and online news had a damaging effect on people’s perception of the virus. “So many people get their facts from social media and inaccurate news articles,” she said. “Some people believe everything they read online, and it is really dangerous. It was so hard reading about people thinking the whole pandemic was a hoax when we have had colleagues die from the virus.”

It takes a certain type of person to be a paramedic. To be able to remain calm and logical in the most destressing of situations, and the COVID-19 pandemic was an extreme example. “For some people who call us, it is the worst day of their lives,” said Jess. “But for us it has to just be another day so that we can do the best job possible. You have to go to each new job knowing they are going to get the best version of you.” 

Now a fully qualified paramedic, Jess is one of hundreds of students who have been put through the most challenging work simulation to date. One that no one saw coming, and that we hope we never have to experience again.

Posted in Longer reads, Mental Health

The Meghan and Harry interview- we need to stop questioning mental health issues

Trigger warning- depression, anxiety, suicide.

Well then. Have you seen it yet? THAT interview? The one that the World and its grandmother seems to be talking about? The one between the actress, war veteran and philanthropist? Otherwise known as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

I am not a royalist. I don’t feel that as a British citizen I should be indebted to an institution, which although embedded within our national history and identity, holds no relevance to my actual life. Saying this, I don’t overly dislike them either. Consider me Switzerland, happily neutral.

When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex chose to stand down from their royal duties, I didn’t really give it much thought. I admired them a little I suppose. Without knowing much about their personal troubles, I just saw a mother and father choosing to step away from something which clearly wasn’t bringing them happiness. I understand it’s a little deeper and more complicated than that. But on the surface, that is what it comes down to. And who would I be, a mere British citizen whose entire understanding of the royal family is based on The Crown, to judge them for it?

I watched the interview and like many people, was shocked by the revelations it held. However, this is not what I want to address. Many people have commented on the interview, and it has enough shocking content to be written about for years to come. What I am more hurt and frankly frightened by is the reaction by us, the British people, concerning the Duchess of Sussex’s mental health. Meghan bravely admitted to struggling severely with her mental health, including that she had suicidal thoughts.  She told Oprah that she “didn’t want to be alive anymore.” From reading articles, social media posts, and watching British morning breakfast television, I have seen and heard all of the following responses.

“Well, do we believe her?”

“I don’t believe a word of it”

“Another attempt for sympathy, how pathetic”

“Where is the evidence of any of this actually happening?”

Mental health issues are still seen as things which need justification. Validation. To be properly confirmed and proved before sympathy can be issued. This is unbelievably harmful and is a reason many people choose to not speak about their mental health. Imagine struggling with something so horrible, so personal, only to find yourself having to convince people to believe that those struggles are real. People who may be struggling right now are watching a woman being torn apart by the British public and press for admitting that she no longer wanted to live. We’re not talking that she was a bit upset, or lonely, or struggling to adapt to a new way of life. Meghan Markle wanted to die. She wanted to leave her loved ones behind because she couldn’t cope anymore. And the fact that this should be in any way questioned for its legitimacy is disgusting.

When Caroline Flack tragically took her own life in February 2020, my social media feeds were full of sympathy. “Be kind”, people would say, “you never know what someone is going through.” People are full of empathy and sorrow, which is often the case after a mental health tragedy. But what about now? What about when a woman is openly speaking of her suicidal thoughts. What I have seen and read will be a mere fraction of the comments made about the legitimacy of Meghan’s experiences. And it has to stop.

Writer Matt Haig is a prominent voice in the discussion of mental health online.

If someone had a broken bone, it would be treated immediately. Imagine the scenario of people surrounding you, lying on the floor in writhing pain and then being told, “right, before we help you in any way, we need to just check that your leg is actually broken, and that you need our help. This could just be for attention.” In this time, the pain is growing, becoming unbearable. You start to wish you had just tried to help yourself, instead of reaching out to others who seem to hold enough power to determine whether your pain is legitimate enough to be treated. This is true for thousands of mental health sufferers. And what’s worse, it has a domino effect. If someone hears or sees poor treatment of someone’s mental health, it will inevitably make them less likely to ask for help. If someone is called selfish, or attention-seeking, or a liar, then a silent sufferer will stay silent, out of fear of receiving the same treatment. The aftermath of the Meghan and Harry interview is doing this on a catastrophic scale.

We will find ourselves inundated in a mental-health pandemic within the next few years. COVID-19 has brought trauma, isolation, and grief in horrifying amounts, and it is more important than ever that mental-health is taken seriously.

So, whether you are a royalist or not, whether you believe Meghan and Harry or not, do not belittle mental health claims. If you find out someone is suffering, don’t let your first instinct be, “do I believe them”, but instead think about what you can do. The consequences otherwise can be devastating, and we all need to do better.

Matt Haig’s Instagram Account- https://www.instagram.com/mattzhaig/

Posted in Longer reads

“Why are you pretending to like football? It won’t make boys like you more”

Saturday in my house was football. It started in the morning going to watch my brother play, where I desperately wished for the ball to go out of play so I could show off my skills kicking it back in. “Woah who is she?” I’d hear them say from the opposition touchline. Players would stare at me in awe, “such talent for a young age, I wonder who she plays for…” Obviously that didn’t happen. I was quite young, and to all intents and purposes, pretty insignificant. But still, I loved the atmosphere. The passion. The pace of the game. I would be running on the touchline, willing them to drive forward. I’d shout “man on”, “the overlaps on”, “he’s offside ref”. I genuinely enjoyed the game, and wanted to feel involved.

Football would continue throughout the day, with us either going to watch our local team, or sitting down to watch them on the TV. Either way, it was a big deal. A real family affair. It was just a right of passage that Saturday afternoons would be filled with football chat, placing £1 bets, and supporting the team. It has been this way since my childhood, and I can’t really imagine it any other way. It hadn’t really occurred to me that some families didn’t watch football. That it wasn’t an intrinsic part of their lives. But when I was at school I learnt very quickly that perhaps my situation wasn’t the ‘norm’ and that as a young girl, I needed to remember my place, and in some situations, just be quiet. Opinionless. Feign ignorance.

I remember in Secondary school, probably around 12 years old, being sat in a pretty boring geography lesson and the boys on our table started talking about a football game. A game I had seen. A game I had been to. I waited until the conversation lulled a little, and then said in reference to a goal scorer of the game, “I think he’s on really good form at the moment”.

Silence.

They all stared at me. One of them laughed. One of them looked like I had just said something offensive about a beloved grandparent of theirs. Only one of them, a friend of mine, asked what I thought of the game. We had a short conversation about it, and then it went quiet again. That was when one particular boy, a boy I didn’t like but who was pretty ‘popular’, made a comment which has stuck with me for over 10 years.

“Why are you pretending to like football? It won’t make boys like you more”

I opened my mouth to retaliate but realised I couldn’t say anything. My mouth went dry and I felt my cheeks flush. Other boys in the class turned round to look at me, and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I wish that 12-year-old me would have retaliated. Would have said that I wasn’t pretending, and that if I was, why on earth would I do it to get the attention of someone as conceited and insignificant as you? I wish I had continued to talk about the game when they resumed their conversation. I wish I had corrected them on statistics they were spouting which I knew to be incorrect. Fixtures which they were getting wrong. I wish I had given my opinion on formations and squad selections. But I stayed quiet. I felt unable to talk about something which I was passionate about, something I genuinely liked. I realised that day, in that class, that not only did they not believe I could be as interested in football as them, but that even if I was, they didn’t want to hear about it. Because I was a girl.

From that day on, I was very careful with who I spoke to about football. I would chat to friends of mine about the game, but would never join in big conversations for fear of my interest being mis-interpretated as wanted romantic attention. Once in a morning tutor session, I was speaking to my friend about a bet I had won on a game at the weekend, and our conversation was overheard by another ‘popular’ lad, who no one really liked but somehow whose opinion was held in extremely high regard.

“He isn’t going to sleep with you, no matter how many bets you’ve won”.

My friend laughed and my heart sank. He afterwards apologised as he realised how offended I was. I was so confused. Why is my liking of football being sexualised? Why do people think I am doing it because I want something, whether its attention, affection, or sexual favours? Why can’t I just talk about it like the lads do? Why does me having an opinion on football seem to be SO amusing to some people?

I wish I could say that as I have gotten older that this is no longer the case. But I can’t. At nearly twenty-three years of age, I still sometimes receive raised eyebrows at the mention of football. I notice the small smirks. The raised intonation in people’s voice when they inquisitively say, “you watched the game?” The difficult questions targeted at you which you know are to try and catch you out, or trip you up, to prove that ‘HA, we knew it, you are just pretending to like football.’ The surprise at having a fantasy football team. The questioning of you having a season ticket. I notice it all, and quite frankly, am sick of it.

Women are becoming more involved in the game. On television we are seeing less ‘token’ female pundits, and more firmly established ones. Commentators, reporters, and ex-professional players are slowly becoming more common in the football space. And I for one am extremely glad about it. But there is still this pressure and expectation that as a woman talking about football, you need to be careful. To watch your back. To make sure you don’t get something wrong because if you do, it is not because you just got confused, or that you had a slip of the tongue- it is because you are a woman. And this illustrates the deep-seated ideology that is still commonplace; liking football is in some way unfeminine. It contradicts your womanhood. The two will always be slightly conflicting and you must learn to expect criticism, laughter, and judgement from some people to whom the idea of a woman liking football is just a bit odd.  

I hope this changes. Selfishly for me so that I can speak about football as much as I would like to, not as much as I know society expects me too, which is not a lot. I hope it changes so that twelve-year-old girls can engage in the same conversations as their male peers, without being tormented or assumed to be liars or attention seekers. But I know that for this to change, a huge shift in established gender norms would need to occur, which I fear is a long way off happening. For now though, just know that if you’re a guy, and a girl speaks to you about football, don’t sexualise it. Don’t say that makes her more attractive, or less attractive. Don’t question her legitimacy. Just talk about the game. For it is a beautiful game, and one that should be enjoyed by everyone.